Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Farewell, Stephen Jay Gould

by Jeffrey St. Clair

Look back at the life of the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and we confront an astonishing fact: he was only 60 when he died at the start of this week. It hardly seems possible that Gould could have done so much work in so complex a field in so little time. His revolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium, nothing less than a wholesale rewrite of Darwin, alone seems worthy of a career. That achievement came very early in his life (he was 30), but he kept on refining and enhancing it right up to the end. In March of this year, Gould, battling the cancer that would finally end his life, published The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, a 1,500-page treatise that will surely stand as one of the most important volumes in the history of the biological sciences.

Yet, there was so much more to the man and his work.

Gould was an engaged academic in the best sense. He used his formidable intellect and sharp prose to lay waste to charlatans who sought to use pseudo-science for malign political purposes. At the top of the list was Charles Murray, the right-wing sociologist, whose racist tract the Bell Curve sought prove that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites and genetically incapable of leading productive lives. It became a manifesto for the Gingrich right in the early 90s, on the rampage to destroy what remained of the federal government’s social welfare system and justify its own racist policies.

Gould’s review in the New Yorker demolished Murray’s tract as a pastiche of fabricated statistics, perverted science and fraudulent conclusions. Here’s a taste of Gould at work: “The Bell Curve, with its claims and supposed documentation that race and class differences are largely caused by genetic factors and are therefore essentially immutable, contains no new arguments and presents no compelling data to support its anachronistic social Darwinism, so I can only conclude that its success in winning attention must reflect the depressing temper of our time — a historical moment of unprecedented ungenerosity, when a mood for slashing social programs can be power-fully abetted by an argument that beneficiaries cannot be helped, owing to inborn cognitive limits expressed as low I.Q. scores.”

Of course, annihilating the likes of Charles Murray was child’s play for Gould. In his extraordinary book The Mismeasure of Man (1982), Gould decimated Murray’s intellectual godfathers, Arthur Jensen, Cesare Lombroso, the demented Italian criminologist, and the American psychologist Lewis M. Terman, creator of the Revised Stanford-Binet IQ Test, who once tried to calculate the IQ of Mozart. The value of Gould’s book in exposing the “rotten core” of these intelligence testers cannot be overestimated and it must not be forgotten. It stands in the same line as Allan Chase’s great 1977 book The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism.

There is an undying impulse to proclaim a genetic basis for nearly every aspect of the human condition, from poverty to crime. Today’s search for the “violence gene” follows the same unsavory path as Lombroso’s assertion that pederasts could be id’d by their clasped hands and that tattoos were an unfailing indicator of innate criminality. (In police departments across America, Lombroso’s tattoos have been replaced by profiling of skin color alone.)

Yes, Gould was a hyper-rationalist, devoted to the study of one of the coldest of sciences: paleontology. In a real sense, Gould, like all evolutionists, studied extinction, charting the deaths of one species after another. But his true passion was reserved for the preservation of the Earth’s ecosystems and the improvement of human life on the planet. Gould understood very well that poverty, ignorance and greed were the forces behind most human misery and ecological pillage. He was a humane and, by all accounts, generous man, who wrote vivid, lucid prose that made the most obscure disputes about evolutionary theory seem vital and comprehensible.

During the 1980s, Gould had rich sport torturing the creationists, who were in the ascendancy during Reagan-time. His essay “The Verdict on Creationism” is a model of its kind and is worthy of one of his heroes, Mark Twain. But Gould did more than write about it; he savored political combat. In 1987, he put his weight behind a court case, Edwards v. Aguillard, challenging Lousiana’s Creationism Act, which mandated that creation science (Gould dubbed it “Genesis literalism”) be taught along side evolution. The Supreme Court struck the law down. In 1999, Gould rushed to Kansas to protest the decision by the Board of Education to banish evolution (and the Big Bang Theory) from public school classrooms. “To teach biology without evolution is like teaching English without grammar”, Gould said. “We may be in Kansas, but we’re not in the real world anymore.” (He was more principled, also more financially secure, than the young Lyndon Johnson, applying in the 1930s for his first teaching position. “Well now, Mr Johnson,” said the interviewer. “How would you propose to teach evolution?” “Sir,” said LBJ, “I need this job. I can teach it either way.”)

At a time when the neo-eugenics movement was regaining its foothold in biology departments across the nation, Gould refused to give ground to those who would reduce every aspect of human existence to the operation of some deep genetic programming, even when it meant taking on the icy sociobiologists down the hall at Harvard, headlined by Edward O. Wilson. ”My message is not that biological determinists were bad scientists or even that they were always wrong, Gould writes in the introduction to the Mismeasure of Man. Rather, I believe that science must be understood as a social phenomenon, a gutsy, human enterprise, not the work of robots programed to collect pure information.”

In 1982, Gould was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare abdominal cancer linked to exposure to asbestos. The statistics in the medical literature,_which Gould, of course, rushed to consume,_gave him median life expectancy of 8 months. But, ever the statistician, he calculated his own odds: he had great health insurance, the best doctors, access to experimental treatments and an optimistic attitude. He captured it all in a brilliant essay on mortality statistics and cancer, titled The Median Isn’t the Message. “It has become, in my view, a bit too trendy to regard the acceptance of death as something tantamount to intrinsic dignity. Of course I agree with the preacher of Ecclesiastes that there is a time to love and a time to die–and when my skein runs out I hope to face the end calmly and in my own way. For most situations, however, I prefer the more martial view that death is the ultimate enemy–and I find nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light.”

Gould made it another incredibly productive 20 years. He never stopped fighting one step along the way.

Books by Stephen Jay Gould

I Have Landed : The End of a Beginning in Natural History

Ontogeny and Phylogeny

Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms : Essays on Natural History

Eight Little Piggies : Reflections in Natural History

Bully for Brontosaurus : Reflections in Natural History

Dinosaur in a Haystack : Reflections in Natural History

Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes

The Flamingo’s Smile : Reflections in Natural History

Ever Since Darwin

The Panda’s Thumb

Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstitions and Other Confusions of Our Time

The Book of Life: an Illustrated History of the Evolution of Life on Earth

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory

The Mismeasure of Man


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at:

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
Lara Gardner
Why I’m Not Voting
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Sheldon Richman
Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Joseph Natoli
Seething Anger in the Post-2016 Election Season
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017