A History of Life

One of the world’s most innovative and controversial evolutionary biologists, Stephen J. Gould publishes his magnum opus

Tucked away in the Museum of Comparative Zoology is the labyrinthine office of Stephen Jay Gould, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Geology, Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology and adjunct member of the Department of the History of Science. On my way in, his secretary tells me to “follow the voice,” and I do until I see Gould at his desk. The office is dim and crowded with posters covering the walls and books everywhere. I notice a neon green book on the floor with the words “X-Files” in the title. Gould really is well acquainted with all kinds of science, I think. He can move from Ontogeny and Phylogeny to the paranormal in the blink of an eye.

Over the course of this half-hour conversation with Gould, he divulges many details that range from his dislike of being photographed to tidbits about his latest contribution to the scientific and literary fields—The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. At 1,433 pages, it is a majestic tome that marks 20 years of devoted work. It’s clear that Gould is satisfied with the book; he jokes that “I haven’t even found a typo.” I ask him for a 100-page abridged version. He suggests the first 50 or so pages, the six-page segue between the two parts, and the last section of Chapter 12.

At the beginning of the interview Gould shrugs a lot. He seems almost reluctant to speak; when he does it is in brief sentences. But he is quick to dismiss his critics and just as quick to praise his supporters and collaborators. When I read him part of Mark Ridley’s New York Times review of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Gould calls Ridley “one of my enemies” and scoffs at his comment that the book is too wordy. Two days later Gould paid generous tribute to Ernst Mayr, a forefather of the theory of punctuated equilibrium and fellow Harvard professor, in a lecture and book launch reception sponsored by the 2002 Harvard Scientists Lecture Series.

The book itself represents—arguably—the most ambitious discussion of evolution since Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Professor of Psychology Marc Hauser said in an interview that The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is “really two parts: one is an incredible history of evolutionary history, and in that sense very much like Ernst Mayr’s book The Growth of Biological Thought. Part two is really how [Gould] sees his own thinking in evolutionary biology fitting in with alternative perspectives.” Gould agrees with this synopsis, comparing the new book to his first major work, 1977’s Ontogeny and Phylogeny.

When I ask Gould if science is (mis)represented in the media, he goes on a tangent about how an alarming number of people—Harvard undergraduates included—don’t know why we have seasons. Gould’s many books and essays, including The Structure of Evolutionary History, also follow this fascinatingly digressive, metaphorical route. His famous monthly column in National History magazine began in January 1974 and ended in January 2001, upon the “fortuitous” publication of the 300th essay. Gould calls them “popular, conventional…essays, mostly dealing with evolution in one way or another.” Evolution, he declares, is “one of the subjects which has really captured popular imagination and still does. It explains so far as science has access to these questions, why we’re here, what we’re related to, what it means.”

I make the mistake of asking Gould the typical reporter’s question: can you summarize your theory on punctuated equilibrium, which you formulated with Niles Eldredge in 1972? “No, no—I don’t do that,” he says, referring me to Chapter 9 of the latest book and a 1993 Nature paper written by him and Eldredge

commemorating the 21st anniversary of the theory, which concerns rates of evolution. “It’s really not fair,” he says. “You can’t summarize concepts and ideas into one punctuated equilibrium sound byte.” I can’t argue with that.

Instead, I ask him about the “selfish gene,” championed by one of Gould’s critics, Richard Dawkins. Gould devotes about 50 pages in Chapter 8 of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory to explaining why he believes that the “selfish gene” argument is wrong—“just factually wrong.” For Gould, natural selection “also works on groups within species, it works on species. It can work on whole clades, which are groups of related species. A lot of what Dawkins and [E.O.] Wilson don’t like about my stuff [is because] they’re much more committed to the primacy of adaptational explanations, like the behavior and physiology or anatomy of organisms, and I think they take that too far.”

In an email, Hauser’s fellow Science B-29 Professor Richard W. Wrangham contributed the adaptationist’s point of view. Citing his own research on genital masculinization in spotted hyenas, Wrangham explained that the hypothesis long trumpeted by Gould, which claims that the hyena’s genitals are a non-adaptive by-product of high androgen levels, is wrong. “It’s an unusual case, but it seems to me an important symbol—first of the supposed correctness of the anti-adaptationist perspective, and now of the fact that simplistic thinking can be found on both sides of the debate,” he said. “Despite [Gould’s] long-held claims, an adaptationist perspective may well be the right way to explain hyena pseudo-penises after all.”

Although Gould does have his detractors, his impressive ability to synthesize massive amounts of information is unparalleled. This rapid-fire ability to bridge and link vastly different topics is what defines Gould’s astonishing prolificacy as a writer. “I just see connections among things for some reason,” he gloats. “Anything I’ve ever read I can access or find it. Mention any topic and I can relate it to 10 or 15 things. That’s how I construct the essays, I get an idea, and write out the connections.” “What is the wildest connection you’ve ever made?” I ask. Gould takes almost no time to reply. “Discovering that the chief guru of the construction of the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory, R.A. Fisher, late in his life, became a serious apologist for the tobacco industry when the links with cancer were first being established.” I’m impressed.

Just how does Gould shuttle so effortlessly between writing for the layperson and for an evolutionary biologist? He cites Wonderful Life and Full House as the two books written for a “popular” audience of which he is most proud, saying that “there should be no difference in conceptual depth between so-called popular and technical writing.” Gould merely makes a distinction in the words that he uses. “I think that I don’t … write any different[ly] for a popular audience,” he says. “What I write for the popular audience is the same in as I would write for a colleague—I change the language, of course. I don’t use jargon in popular science obviously.”

Hauser also commented that “what’s nice about [Gould’s] writing is that unlike an article written in Discover magazine, which is very much watered down, he doesn’t dumb it down, he treats you like an intelligent person. The sign of a good writer—of which he is one—is that [he doesn’t] need the jargon of the field to explain clearly what the concepts are.” Wrangham echoed these sentiments: “[Gould] is a thoroughly lively and engaging writer who deserves enormous credit for translating a lot of ideas into language that untrained readers can enjoy. He is so widely read and enjoyed that any such themes that he repeats must surely become accepted by much of the educated public.”

With such sway, does Gould foresee himself publishing another book of such mammoth proportions? “[It] depends on how much time they give me,” he jokes, but admits that he has at least two more “really big” projects in mind. “If I get 30 more years, I’ll write them,” he says. “See, Ontogeny and Phylogeny is about the organism, and The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is about theory. I should write one on patterns in the history of life.” Gould also hopes to tackle the construction of his own profession, having built up an impressive antiquarian book collection on the early history of paleontology, which he calls “a sixteenth- to eighteenth-century phenomenon.”

Much as Gould likes to dodge the term “scientific celebrity” during the interview, his popularity and his widely publicized anti-creationist, anti-sociobiological arguments have lent that very term to his persona. As George V. Lauder, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, commented in an email, “[Gould] is probably the best known evolutionary biologist of his generation. His popularity is due to his ability to choose what seem like small features of the biological world…and use these examples as a launching pad to explain in a creative and clever way key features of evolutionary biology.” According to Wrangham, “no one is better at weaving history, science and the arts into a compelling narrative.”

Not only is Gould a master of scientific narrative—editorials on numerous other subjects have also appeared in publications from Time to the Boston Globe. When I ask him about his wife, sculptor Rhonda Shearer, he tells me that she set up a supply depot from her studio near Ground Zero, and he also gives me copies of two editorials that he recently wrote about the September 11 attacks. The op-eds have the same exquisitely lucid style that characterizes most of his writing; Gould dissects a human catastrophe as well as he does a pillar of evolutionary theory.

As an influential scientist and expert wordsmith, as storyteller, opinionist, and master of the anecdote, Stephen Jay Gould has contributed an immense amount to the fields of paleontology, biology, geology, and anthropology—not to mention many others that he addresses with equal facility. “One of my theories is that everybody is very good at some thing,” he says. “Once in a while you’ll luck out and what you happen to be at is also professionally very useful, and I turned out to be in that category.”

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