Sunday, June 19, 2005

OBT: Stephen Jay Gould

I have been wanting to add Stephen Jay Gould to my list of tributes on the left-hand side of the blog here for some time.

Gould was not always right, but he was an elegant thinker, and if nothing else, at least in my mind, "created" a host of modern evolutionary thinkers by forcing folks to confront some far-ranging ideas -- punctuated equilibrium being the obvious leader of these, the connection between ontogeny and phylogeny another. His ideas allowed us to strengthen the teaching of evolution simply by forcing us to look at angles we might have otherwise missed. In my definition, that is what a teacher does.

I was much influenced by him, as many others were i suspect (even those who might dis him now en route to their own theoretical pinnacles). But i am most proud to acknowledge him as "teacher".

So today i received a new packet of Cuban snails, specimens of the genus Cerion -- a land snail group of which i am currently doing some work, and which was the particular group of which Gould did the bulk of his research, when i came across this obituary and an old New York Times article. And so for posterity (and enlightenment) . . .

Stephen Jay Gould, Evolution Theorist, Dies at 60
By CAROL KAESUK YOON, The New York Times, May 21, 2002

Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary theorist at Harvard University whose
research, lectures and prolific output of essays helped to reinvigorate the
field of paleontology, died yesterday at his home in Manhattan. He was 60.

The cause was cancer, said his wife, Rhonda Roland Shearer.

One of the most influential evolutionary biologists of the 20th century and
perhaps the best known since Charles Darwin, Dr. Gould touched off numerous
debates, forcing scientists to rethink sometimes entrenched ideas about
evolutionary patterns and processes.

One of his best known theories, developed with Niles Eldredge, argued that
evolutionary change in the fossil record came in fits and starts rather than a
steady process of slow change.

This theory, known as punctuated equilibrium, was part of Dr. Gould's work that
brought a forsaken paleontological perspective to the evolutionary mainstream.

Dr. Gould achieved a fame unprecedented among modern evolutionary biologists. He
was depicted in cartoon form on "The Simpsons," and renovations of his SoHo loft
in Manhattan were featured in a glowing article in Architectural Digest.

Famed for both brilliance and arrogance, Dr. Gould was the object of admiration
and jealousy, both revered and reviled by colleagues.

Outside of academia, Dr. Gould was almost universally adored by those familiar
with his work. In his column in Natural History magazine, he wrote in a voice
that combined a learned Harvard professor and a baseball-loving everyman. The
Cal Ripken Jr. of essayists, he produced a meditation for each of 300
consecutive issues starting in 1974 and ending in 2001. Many were collected into
best-selling books like "Bully for Brontosaurus."

Other popular books by Dr. Gould include "Wonderful Life," which examines the
evolution of early life as recorded in the fossils of the Burgess Shale, and
"The Mismeasure of Man," a rebuttal to what Dr. Gould described as
pseudoscientific theories used to defend racist ideologies.

Dr. Gould was born on Sept. 10, 1941, in Queens, the son of Leonard Gould, a
court stenographer, and Eleanor Gould, an artist and entrepreneur. Dr. Gould
took his first steps toward a career in paleontology as a 5-year-old when he
visited the American Museum of Natural History with his father.

"I dreamed of becoming a scientist, in general, and a paleontologist, in
particular, ever since the Tyrannosaurus skeleton awed and scared me," he once
wrote. In an upbringing filled with fossils and the Yankees, he attended P.S. 26
and Jamaica High School. He then enrolled at Antioch College in Ohio, where he
received a bachelor's degree in geology in 1963.

In 1967, he received a doctorate in paleontology from Columbia University and
went on to teach at Harvard, where he would spend the rest of his career. But it
was in graduate school that Dr. Gould and a fellow graduate student, Dr.
Eldredge, now a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, began
sowing the seeds for the most famous of the still-roiling debates that he is
credited with helping to start.

Studying the fossil record, the two students could not find the gradual,
continuous change in fossil forms that they were taught was the stuff of
evolution. Instead they found sudden appearances of new fossil forms (sudden,
that is, on the achingly slow geological time scale) followed by long periods in
which these organisms changed little.

Evolutionary biologists had always ascribed such difficulties to the famous
incompleteness of the fossil record. But in 1972, the two proposed the theory of
punctuated equilibrium, a revolutionary suggestion that the sudden appearances
and lack of change were, in fact, real. According to the theory, there are long
periods of time, sometimes millions of years, during which species change
little, if at all.

Intermittently, new species arise and there is rapid evolutionary change on a
geological time scale (still interminably slow on human time scales) resulting
in the sudden appearance of new forms in the fossil record. This creates
punctuations of rapid change against a backdrop of steady equilibrium, hence the

Thirty years later, scientists are still arguing over how often the fossil
record shows a punctuated pattern and how such a pattern might arise. Many
credit punctuated equilibrium with promoting the flowering of the field of
macroevolution, in which researchers study large-scale evolutionary changes,
often in a geological time frame.

In 1977, Dr. Gould's book "Ontogeny and Phylogeny" drew biologists' attention to
the long-ignored relationship between how organisms develop that is, how an
adult gets built from the starting plans of an egg and how they evolve.

"Gould has given biologists a new way to see the organisms they study," wrote
Dr. Stan Rachootin, an evolutionary biologist at Mount Holyoke College. Many
credit the book with helping to inspire the new field of evo-devo, or the study
of evolution and development.

Dr. Gould and Dr. Richard Lewontin, also at Harvard, soon elaborated on the
importance of how organisms are built, or their architecture, in a famous paper
about a feature of buildings known as a spandrel. Spandrels, the spaces above an
arch, exist as a necessary outcome of building with arches. In the same way,
they argued, some features of organisms exist simply as the result of how an
organism develops or is built. Thus researchers, they warned, should refrain
from assuming that every feature exists for some adaptive purpose.

In March, Harvard University Press published what Dr. Gould described as his
magnum opus, "The Structure of Evolutionary Theory." The book, on which he
toiled for decades, lays out his vision for synthesizing Darwin's original ideas
and his own major contributions to macroevolutionary theory.

"It is a heavyweight work," wrote Dr. Mark Ridley, an evolutionary biologist at
University of Oxford in England. And despite sometimes "almost pathological
logorrhea" at 1,433 pages, Dr. Ridley went on, "it is still a magnificent
summary of a quarter-century of influential thinking and a major publishing
event in evolutionary biology."

Dr. Gould was dogged by vociferous, often high-profile critics. Some argued that
his theories, like punctuated equilibrium, were so malleable and difficult to
pin down that they were essentially untestable.

After once proclaiming that Dr. Gould had brought paleontology back to the high
table of evolutionary theory, Dr. John Maynard Smith, an evolutionary biologist
at University of Sussex in England, wrote that other evolutionary biologists
"tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth
bothering with." Sometimes these criticisms descended into accusations that were
as personal as intellectual. Punctuated equilibrium, for example, has been
called "evolution by jerks."

Some who study smaller-scale evolution within species, called
microevolutionists, reject Dr. Gould's arguments that there are unique features
to large-scale evolution, or macroevolution. Instead, they say that
macroevolution is nothing more than microevolution played out over long periods.
Dr. Gould also had heated battles with sociobiologists, researchers using a
particular method of studying animal behavior, and there are many there who
reject his ideas as well.

Others criticized him for championing theories that challenge parts of the
modern Darwinian framework, an act some see as aiding and abetting creationists.
Yet Dr. Gould was a visible opponent of efforts to get evolution out of the

An entertaining writer credited with saving the dying art form of the scientific
essay, Dr. Gould often pulled together unrelated ideas or things. (He began one
essay by noting that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same
day.) A champion of the underdog (except in his support of the Yankees), he
favored theories and scientists that had been forgotten or whose reputations
were in disrepair.

Dr. Gould also popularized evolutionary ideas at Harvard, sometimes finding his
lecture halls filled to standing-room only. But while his adventures typically
took place in the library, colleagues said that Dr. Gould, whose specialty was
Cerion land snails in the Bahamas, was also impressive in the field.

Noting that in graduate school Dr. Gould dodged bullets and drug runners to
collect specimens of Cerion and their fossils, Dr. Sally Walker, who studies
Cerion at the University of Georgia, once said, "That guy can drive down the
left side of the road," which is required in the Bahamas, "then jump out the
door and find Cerion when we can't even see it." Then, she recalled, this
multilingual student of classical music and astronomy and countless other
eclectia might joyously break out into Gilbert and Sullivan song.

Dr. Gould is survived by his wife; his mother; his two sons from a previous
marriage, Jesse Gould of Cambridge, Mass., and Ethan Gould of Boston; his
stepson, Jade Allen of Gainesville, Fla.; and his stepdaughter, London Allen of
Manhattan. His previous marriage, to Deborah Lee of Cambridge, ended in divorce.

Dr. Gould had an earlier battle with cancer in 1982. When abdominal mesothelioma
was diagnosed, he reacted by dragging himself to Harvard's medical library as
soon as he could walk.

In a well-known essay titled, "The Median is not the Message," he described
discovering that the median survival time after diagnosis was a mere eight
months. Rather than giving up hope, he wrote that he used his knowledge of
statistics to translate an apparent death sentence into the hopeful realization
that half those in whom the disease was diagnosed survived longer than eight
months, perhaps much longer, giving him the strength to fight on.

"When my skein runs out, I hope to face the end calmly and in my own way," he
wrote. However, "death is the ultimate enemy and I find nothing reproachable
in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light." He survived the
illness through experimental treatment, but died of an unrelated cancer, in a
bed in his library among his beloved books.

Dr. Gould received innumerable awards and honors, including a MacArthur "genius"
grant the first year they were awarded. He served as president of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science, was a member of the National Academy
of Sciences and won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle
Award. He was the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard and the
Astor Visiting Research Professor of Biology at New York University.

Whether eloquently and forcefully championing new or forgotten ideas or
dismantling what he saw as misconceptions, Dr. Gould spent a career trying to
shed light on an impossibly wide variety of subjects.

He once wrote, "I love the wry motto of the Paleontological Society (meant both
literally and figuratively, for hammers are the main tool of our trade): Frango
ut patefaciam I break in order to reveal."


Post a Comment

<< Home