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