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Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941 – May 20, 2002) was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation, which led many authors to call him "America's unofficial evolutionist laureate." He spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the [American Museum of Natural History.

Early in his career he developed with Niles Eldredge the theory of punctuated equilibrium, where evolutionary change occurs relatively rapidly to comparatively longer periods of evolutionary stability. According to Gould, punctuated equilibrium revised a key pillar of neo-Darwinism.[1] Some evolutionary biologists have argued that the theory was an important insight, but merely modified neo-Darwinism in a manner which was fully compatible with what had been known before.[2]

Gould received many accolades for his scholarly work[3] and popular expositions of natural history,[4] but was criticized by some in the biological community who felt his public presentations were, in various respects, out of step with mainstream evolutionary theory. Other critics went further and accused Gould of misrepresenting their work;[5] likewise Gould himself accused his critics of misrepresenting his work.[6] The public debates between those that agreed with Gould and those that criticized him have been so quarrelsome that they have been dubbed "The Darwin Wars" by several commentators.[7].

Personal life

Gould was born and raised in Queens, New York, His father Leonard was a court stenographer, and his mother Eleanor an artist. When Gould was five years old his father took him to the "Hall of Dinosaurs" in the American Museum of Natural History, where he first met Tyrannosaurus rex. "I had no idea there were such things—I was awestruck," Gould once recalled.[8] It was in that moment that he decided he would become a paleontologist.

Raised in a nominally Jewish home, Gould did not formally practice organized religion and preferred to be called an agnostic. Politically, though he "had been brought up by a Marxist father," he is quoted as saying that his father's politics were "very different" from his own. Throughout his career and writings he spoke out against cultural oppression in all its forms, especially what he saw as pseudoscience in the service of racism and sexism. In the early 1970s Gould joined a group called "Science for the People," a left-wing organization which emerged from the antiwar movement. He also gave a course titled "Biology as a Social Weapon," which, Gould explained, was intended to foster "a powerful political and moral vision of how science, properly interpreted and used to empower all the people, might truly help us to be free."[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Gould was twice married; to Deborah Lee in 1965 which ended in divorce, and to artist Rhonda Roland Shearer in 1995. Gould had two children, Jesse and Ethan, by his first marriage, and two stepchildren, Jade and London.

In July 1982 Gould was diagnosed with abdominal mesothelioma. He later published a column in Discover magazine, titled "The Median Isn't the Message," in which he discusses his discovery that mesothelioma patients had only a median lifespan of eight months after diagnosis. He then describes the research he uncovered behind this number, and his relief upon the realization that statistics are not destiny. After his diagnosis and receiving an experimental treatment, Gould continued to live for nearly twenty years. His column became a source of comfort for many cancer patients.

It was during his bout with abdominal mesothelioma that Gould became a user of marijuana to alleviate the nausea associated with his cancer treatments. According to Gould, his use of the illegal drug had the "most important effect" on his eventual cure.[9] His personal success with the substance led him to become a medical marijuana advocate later in his life. In 1998 Gould testified in the case of Jim Wakeford, a Canadian medical-marijuana user and activist.

Stephen Jay Gould died May 20, 2002 from a metastatic adenocarcinoma of the lung (a form of lung cancer, which had spread to his brain). This cancer was completely unrelated to his abdominal mesothelioma, from which he had fully recovered almost twenty years earlier. He died in his home "in a bed set up in the library of his Soho loft, surrounded by his wife Rhonda, his mother Eleanor, and the many books he loved."[10]

Gould as a scientist

Gould began his higher education at Antioch College, a distinguished liberal arts school in Ohio, graduating with a degree in geology in 1963. He spent a brief period of this time studying at the University of Leeds, England —an experience which may have influenced the development of his nascent political awareness.[11] After completing his graduate work at Columbia University in 1967 under the guidance of Norman Newell, he was immediately hired by Harvard University where he worked until the end of his life (1967-2002). In 1973 Harvard promoted him to Professor of Geology and Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the institution's Museum of Comparative Zoology, and in 1982 was awarded the title of Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology. In 1983 he was awarded fellowship into the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where he later served as president (2000). He was Vincent Astor Visiting Research Professor of Biology at New York University from 1996-2002. He also served as president of the Paleontological Society (1985-1986) and the Society for the Study of Evolution (1990-1991). In 1989 Gould was elected into the body of the National Academy of Sciences.

Most of Gould's empirical research was on land snails. His early work was on the Bermuda_Land_SnailPoecilozonites]], while his later work concentrated on the West Indian genus Cerion.

In addition to his work on punctuated equilibrium and evolutionary developmental biology, Gould had championed biological constraints and other non-selectionist forces in evolution. Together with Richard Lewontin they authored an influential 1979 paper critiquing the overuse of adaptation in biology.[12] Their paper introduced the architectural word "spandrel" in an evolutionary context, using it to mean a feature of an organism that exists as a necessary consequence of other features and not built directly, piece by piece, by natural selection.[13] The relative frequency of spandrels, so defined, versus adaptive features in nature, remains a controversial topic in evolutionary biology.

Shortly before his death, Gould published a long treatise recapitulating his version of modern evolutionary theory, written primarily for the technical audience of evolutionary biologists: The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.

Gould as a public figure

Gould became widely known through his popular science essays in Natural History magazine and his best-selling books on evolution. Many of his essays were reprinted in collected volumes, such as Ever Since Darwin and The Panda's Thumb, while his popular treatises included books such as The Mismeasure of Man, Wonderful Life and Full House.

Gould was a passionate advocate of evolutionary theory and wrote prolifically on the subject, trying to communicate his understanding of contemporary evolutionary theories to a wide audience. A recurring theme in his writings is the history and development of evolutionary, and pre-evolutionary, thought. He was also an enthusiastic baseball fan and made frequent references to the sport in his essays.[14]

Although a proud Darwinist, his emphasis was less gradualist and reductionist than most neo-Darwinists. He also opposed many aspects of sociobiology and its intellectual descendant evolutionary psychology. He spent much of his time fighting against creationism (and the related constructs Creation Science and Intelligent Design) and other forms of pseudoscience. Most notably, Gould provided expert testimony against the equal-time creationism law in McLean v. Arkansas. Gould used the term "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" (NOMA) to describe how, in his view, science and religion could not comment on each other's realm.[15]

Gould had become a noted public face of science, and often appeared on television. He once voiced a cartoon version of himself on an episode of The Simpsons . The Simpsons also paid tribute to him after his death. In an episode entitled Papa's Got a Brand New Badge, at the beginning of the credits, the message "Dedicated to the memory of Stephen Jay Gould" appears with a picture from the episode he was in.


Gould was considered by many people to be one of the pre-eminent theoreticians in his field. However, a good number of evolutionary biologists have disagreed with the way in which Gould publicly presented his views. John Maynard Smith, for example, thought that Gould trivialized the role of adaptation, and overestimated the possible role of mutations of large effect.[16] In a recent review of Daniel Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Maynard Smith wrote that Gould "is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory."[17] But Maynard Smith has not been consistently negative, writing in a review of The Panda's Thumb that often "he infuriates me, but I hope he will go right on writing essays like these."[18] Maynard Smith was also among those who welcomed Gould's reinvigoration of evolutionary paleontology.[19]

One reason for such criticism was that Gould appeared to be presenting his ideas as a revolutionary way of understanding evolution, which relegated natural selection to a much less important position. As such, many non-specialists became convinced (due to his early writings) that Darwinian explanations had been proven to be unscientific (which Gould never wanted to imply). His works were sometimes used out of context as a "proof" that scientists no longer understood how organisms evolved, giving creationists ammunition in their battle against evolutionary theory.[20]Gould himself corrected some of these misinterpretations and distortions of his teachings in later works.[21].

Gould also had a long-running feud with E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and other evolutionary biologists over sociobiology and its descendant evolutionary psychology, which Gould strongly opposed but Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker and others strongly advocated.[22] Gould and Dawkins also disagreed over the importance of gene selection in evolution: Dawkins argued that all evolution is ultimately caused by gene competition, while Gould advocated the importance of higher-level competition including, but certainly not limited to, species selection. Strong criticism of Gould can be found in Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker and Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Dennett's criticism has tended to be harsher, while Dawkins praises Gould in evolutionary topics other than those of contention. Pinker accuses Gould, Lewontin and other opponents of evolutionary psychology of being "radical scientists," whose stance on human nature is influenced by politics rather than science.[23] Gould countered that sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists are often heavily influenced, perhaps unconsciously, by their own prejudices and interests.[24].

Gould's interpretation of the Cambrian Burgess Shale fossils in his book Wonderful Life was criticized by Simon Conway Morris in his 1998 book The Crucible Of Creation.[25] Gould had emphasized the "weirdness" of the Burgess Shale fauna, and the role of unpredictable, contingent phenomena in determining which members of this fauna survived and flourished. Conway Morris stressed the phylogenetic linkages between the Burgess Shale forms and modern taxa, particularly, the importance of convergent evolution in producing general predictable responses to similar environmental circumstances. Paleontologist Richard Fortey has noted that prior to the release of Wonderful Life Conway Morris shared many of Gould's sentiments and views. It was only after publication of Wonderful Life that Conway Morris revised his interpretation and adopted a more deterministic stance towards the history of life.[26]

Mismeasure of Man

Main article: The Mismeasure of Man

Gould was also the author of The Mismeasure of Man (1981) a history and skeptical inquiry of psychometrics and intelligence testing. Gould investigated many of the techniques of nineteenth century craniometry, as well as modern-day psychological testing—and claimed they developed unnecessarily from an unfounded faith in biological determinism. The Mismeasure of Man has generated perhaps the most controversy of all Gould's books, and has been subject to widespread praise (by skeptics) and extensive criticism (by psychologists)—including claims by some scientists that Gould had misrepresented their work.[27]


  • For technical audiences
  • For general audiences
    • The Mismeasure of Man (W.W. Norton, 1981; revised 1996), ISBN 0-393-03972-2
    • Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (Harvard University Press, 1987), ISBN 0-674-89198-8
    • Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (W.W. Norton, 1989), ISBN 0-393-02705-8
    • Full House: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin (Harmony Books, 1996), ISBN 0-517-70394-7 (Released outside North America as Life's Grandeur: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin (Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1996), ISBN 0-099-89360-6)
    • Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown (Harmony, 1997); also published in a substantially extended second edition (Harmony, 1999), ISBN 0-609-60541-0
    • Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (Ballantine Books, 1999), ISBN 0-345-43009-3
    • The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities (Harmony, 2003), ISBN 0-609-60140-7
  • Other essay collections

End material

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:


  1. Stephen Jay Gould (2002) pp. 15-21.
  2. John Maynard Smith (1984).
  3. The Harvard Gazette "Paleontologist, author Gould dies at 60" May 20, 2002.
  4. Michael Shermer (2002) "This View of Science" Social Studies of Science 32 (August): 518.

    Awards include a National Book Award for The Panda’s Thumb, a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Mismeasure of Man, the Phi Beta Kappa Book Award for Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, and a Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Wonderful Life, on which Gould commented ‘close but, as they say, no cigar’. Forty-four honorary degrees and 66 major fellowships, medals, and awards bear witness to the depth and scope of his accomplishments in both the sciences and humanities: Member of the National Academy of Sciences, President and Fellow of AAAS, MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ Fellowship (in the first group of awardees), Humanist Laureate from the Academy of Humanism, Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Fellow of the European Union of Geosciences, Associate of the Mus´eum National D’Histoire Naturelle Paris, the Schuchert Award for excellence in paleontological research, Scientist of the Year from Discover magazine, the Silver Medal from the Zoological Society of London, the Gold Medal for Service to Zoology from the Linnean Society of London, the Edinburgh Medal from the City of Edinburgh, the Britannica Award and Gold Medal for dissemination of public knowledge, Public Service Award from the Geological Society of America, Anthropology in Media Award from the American Anthropological Association, Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers, Distinguished Scientist Award from UCLA, the Randi Award for Skeptic of the Year from the Skeptics Society, and a Festschrift in his honour at Caltech.

  5. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby (1997) write:

    John Maynard Smith, one of the world's leading evolutionary biologists, recently summarized in the NYRB the sharply conflicting assessments of Stephen Jay Gould: "Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists." (NYRB, Nov. 30th 1995, p. 46). No one can take any pleasure in the evident pain Gould is experiencing now that his actual standing within the community of professional evolutionary biologists is finally becoming more widely known. . . But as Maynard Smith points out, more is at stake. Gould "is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory"—or as Ernst Mayr says of Gould and his small group of allies—they "quite conspicuously misrepresent the views of [biology's] leading spokesmen." Indeed, although Gould characterizes his critics as "anonymous" and "a tiny coterie," nearly every major evolutionary biologist of our era has weighed in in a vain attempt to correct the tangle of confusions that the higher profile Gould has inundated the intellectual world with.* The point is not that Gould is the object of some criticism—so properly are we all—it is that his reputation as a credible and balanced authority about evolutionary biology is non-existent among those who are in a professional position to know. *These include Ernst Mayr, John Maynard Smith, George Williams, Bill Hamilton, Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Tim Clutton-Brock, Paul Harvey, Brian Charlesworth, Jerry Coyne, Robert Trivers, John Alcock, Randy Thornhill, and many others.

    It should be noted that Ernst Mayr in this quotation is not speaking of Gould in particular, and does not mention him by name, but is speaking of many critics of the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis generally. Some of the names Tooby and Cosmides cite are quite debatable—Mayr, Williams, Hamilton, Dawkins, Wilson, Coyne, and Trivers, for example—debates over issues of theory cannot be taken as an indication of respective ability and scholarship. In reference to Maynard Smith, Gould writes (1997):
    A false fact can be refuted, a false argument exposed; but how can one respond to a purely ad hominem attack? This harder, and altogether more discouraging, task may best be achieved by exposing internal inconsistency and unfairness of rhetoric. . . . It seems futile to reply to an attack so empty of content, and based only on comments by anonymous critics . . . Instead of responding to Maynard Smith's attack against my integrity and scholarship, citing people unknown and with arguments unmentioned, let me, instead, merely remind him of the blatant inconsistency between his admirable past and lamentable present. Some sixteen years ago he wrote a highly critical but wonderfully supportive review of my early book of essays, The Panda's Thumb, stating: "I hope it will be obvious that my wish to argue with Gould is a compliment, not a criticism." He then attended my series of Tanner Lectures at Cambridge in 1984 and wrote in a report for Nature, and under the remarkable title "Paleontology at the High Table," the kindest and most supportive critical commentary I have ever received. He argued that the work of a small group of American paleobiologists had brought the entire subject back to theoretical centrality within the evolutionary sciences. . . . Most remarkably of all, he then reviewed two books on dinosaurs for this journal and devoted more than half his space (much to the distress, I am sure, of the authors of the books supposedly under review) to a trenchant critique of my views on adaptation. . . . So we face the enigma of a man who has written numerous articles, amounting to tens of thousands of words, about my work—always strongly and incisively critical, always richly informed (and always, I might add, enormously appreciated by me). But now Maynard Smith needs to canvass unnamed colleagues to find out that my ideas are "hardly worth bothering with." He really ought to be asking himself why he has been bothering about my work so intensely, and for so many years. Why this dramatic change?
  6. Stephen Jay Gould (2002) pp. 1006-1021. [1]
  7. See Andrew Brown (1999), Richard Morris (2001), and Steve Rose (2002).
  8. Michelle Green (1986) "Stephen Jay Gould: driven by a hunger to learn and to write" People Weekly June 2.
  9. Stephen Jay Gould quoted in Lester Grinspoon, Marihuana, The Forbidden Medicine, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993, pp. 39-41.
  10. Jill Krementz (2002) "Jill Krementz Photo Journal" New York Social Diary June 2.
  11. Masha Etkin (2002) "A Tribute to Stephen Jay Gould '63" Antiochian, Winter edition.
  12. Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin (1979)
  13. Examples include the "masculinized genitalia in female hyenas, exaptive use of an umbilicus as a brooding chamber by snails, the shoulder hump of the giant Irish deer, and several key features of human mentality." (Gould 1997c)
  14. Including enough essays to publish a posthumous anthology Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville. See his essays "The Streak of Streaks" and "Baseball's reliquary" as examples. For an extensive quantitative content analysis of Gould's 300 Natural History essays, see Michael Shermer's "This View of Science" (2002). Shermer found that 78 were primarily about evolutionary theory, and only 15 were primarily about paleontology or paleobiology. By contrast, Shermer classifies 148 essays—nearly half of Gould's total—as primarily "History of Science/Science Studies." Shermer quotes historian of science Ronald Numbers as saying: "I can't say much about Gould's strengths as a scientist, but for a long time I've regarded him as the second most influential historian of science (next to Thomas Kuhn)." (p. 492). Essay analysis from histogram p. 505.
  15. Gould went on to develop this idea in some detail, particularly in the books Rocks of Ages (1999) and The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox (2003). In a 1982 essay for Natural History Gould writes: "Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians, students of the humanities, indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science. The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner." Stephen Jay Gould, "Nonmoral Nature" Natural History 91 (February): 19-26; and reprinted in Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983, pp. 42-43.
  16. John Maynard Smith (1981a) and (1981b).
  17. John Maynard Smith (1995); also quoted in John Tooby and Leda Cosmides (1997).
  18. John Maynard Smith (1981b)
  19. John Maynard Smith (1984).
  20. Robert Wright (1999).
  21. Stephen Jay Gould, "Evolution as fact and theory" Discover 2 (May 1981): 34-37.
  22. But Stephen Jay Gould (1980b) also writes: "Sociobiologists have broadened their range of selective stories by invoking concepts of inclusive fitness and kin selection to solve (successfully I think) the vexatious problem of altruism—previously the greatest stumbling block to a Darwinian theory of social behavior. . . . Here sociobiology has had and will continue to have success. And here I wish it well. For it represents an extension of basic Darwinism to a realm where it should apply." [2]
  23. Steven Pinker (2002) Ch. 6: "Political Scientists."
  24. Stephen Jay Gould (1997b).
  25. Gould and Conway Morris debated the issue in a piece titled "Showdown on the Burgess Shale" published in Nat. Hist. 107 (10): 48-55.
  26. Richard Fortey (1998) "Shock Lobsters" London Review of Books Vol. 20, October 1.
  27. Arthur Jensen (1982).


  • Brown, A. (1999) The Darwin Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Carroll, J. (2003) "Modern Darwinism and the Pseudo-Revolutions of Stephen Jay Gould." In Joseph Carroll, ed., On the Origin of Species New York: Broadview Press, 2003.
  • Conway Morris, S. (1998) The Crucible of Creation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Eldredge, N., S.J. Gould (1972) "Punctuated equilibria: an alternative to phyletic gradualism" In T.J.M. Schopf, ed., Models in Paleobiology. San Francisco: Freeman, Cooper and Company, pp. 82-115.
  • Gould, S.J. (1980a) "Is a new and general theory of evolution emerging?" Paleobiology 6: 119-130.
  • Gould, S.J. (1980b) "Sociobiology and the theory of natural selection." In G. W. Barlow and J. Silverberg, eds., Sociobiology: Beyond Nature/Nurture? Boulder CO: Westview Press, pp. 257-269.
  • Gould, S.J. (1987) "The limits of adaptation: Is language a spandrel of the human brain?" Paper presented to the Cognitive Science Seminar, Centre for Cognitive Science, MIT.
  • Gould, S.J. (1992) "The confusion over evolution" New York Review of Books, Nov. 19, pp. 39-54.
  • Gould, S.J. (1997a) "Darwinian Fundamentalism" New York Review of Books, June 12, pp. 34-37.
  • Gould, S.J. (1997b) "Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism" New York Review of Books, June 26, pp. 47-52.
  • Gould, S.J. (1997c) "The Exaptive Excellence of Spandrels as a Term and Prototype" Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 94: 10750-55.
  • Gould, S.]. and Eldredge, N. (1977) Punctuated equilibria: the tempo and mode of evolution reconsidered, Paleobiology' 3: 115-51.

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