All achievers

Stephen Jay Gould, Ph.D.

Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science

These grand questions about the history of life have to fascinate any thinking person. We want to know why we're here.

Stephen Jay Gould was born in New York City and raised in Bayside in the borough of Queens. On a trip to the Museum of Natural History with his father, five-year-old Stephen was captivated by the giant dinosaur skeletons. The majesty and mystery of these ancient creatures exerted an enduring fascination. Soon, he was reading everything he could find about dinosaurs, fossils and evolution.

Stephen Jay Gould was born on September 10, 1941, in Queens, New York, the son of Leonard Gould, a court stenographer, and Eleanor, an artist and entrepreneur. Gould took his first steps toward a career in paleontology after a visit to 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.”

As a youngster, Gould also enjoyed playing stickball in the street, and poker at home, a game that stimulated his interest in the laws of probability. He was also a lifelong music lover. As a teenager he was a member of New York’s All-City High School Chorus, and he continued to participate in choral groups for the rest of his life. But his thoughts continually returned to the dinosaurs in the museum. When he learned that there was a field of study called paleontology, and that an adult could have a career seeking the fossils of extinct animals, his course in life was set. With only the slightest knowledge of what this career would be, he moved inexorably toward his goal.

In 1958, Stephen Jay Gould graduated from Jamaica High School in New York City, New York. He then attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio and graduated in 1963 with a degree in both geology and philosophy.

Gould’s parents were the American-born children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. There was no precedent of higher education in the family, but his parents supported his academic efforts and also encouraged a strong interest in current events and public affairs. As an undergraduate at Antioch University in Ohio, Gould was active in the Civil Rights Movement. When he spent a year abroad, studying at Leeds University in England, he organized weekly protests at a dance hall that refused to admit black customers, until the management relented and integrated the establishment. While still at Antioch, Gould served as a student intern on a seagoing expedition with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. While docked in Bermuda, he collected a number of fossil specimens, land snails preserved over hundreds of thousands of years. Returning to Antioch with his finds, he discovered that a geology professor, A.C Swinnerton, had left the university his own large collection of snail specimens, which he had collected in Bermuda decades earlier. With so many specimens from one location to examine, Gould decided to make them the topic of his senior thesis. He graduated in 1963 with a degree in geology and philosophy.

January 1982: Stephen Gould in Eleuthera, Bahamas. He has “spent weeks combing the scattered islands of the Caribbean in search of telling specimens of Cerion —an enterprise that has both bizarre and uncomfortable aspects. ‘It’s hot, and the bushes are full of sand flies and mosquitoes,’ says his frequent companion David S. Woodruff, an associate professor of evolutionary biology at the University of California at San Diego.” (Corbis)

Gould continued his field work with snails as a graduate student at Columbia University. From Bermuda, his attention shifted to the snails of the Caribbean islands. He became the leading authority on the snail known as cerion. Roughly 600 distinct species of cerion have been identified, and the unusually rich fossil record of their development presents an excellent model for the study of the evolutionary process. On completing his doctorate in paleontology at Columbia, Gould was hired by Harvard University, an association that lasted until his death.

In 1972, Gould and a colleague, Niles Eldredge, published their theory of punctuated equilibrium, a landmark contribution to the study of evolution. Until this time, the prevailing view was that the process of evolution occurs at a continuous, steady pace. From exhaustive review of the fossil record, Gould noted that successful species remain stable for long periods of time, and that the branching of one evolutionary line into a number of different species happens in relatively short periods on the geological timeline. Although punctuated equilibrium was not universally accepted, Gould had stepped into the vanguard of evolutionary theorists.

January 1982: Paleontologist Stephen Gould at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge. In July of 1982, Gould was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer affecting the abdominal lining and frequently found in people who have been exposed to asbestos or rock dust. (Wally McNamee/CORBIS)

The following year, he was named Professor of Geology and Invertebrate Paleontology and became curator of Harvard’s renowned Museum of Comparative Zoology. His major scientific publication of the 1970s was the book Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977), in which he discussed the maturation of organisms in the context of their evolution as species. For many years, he contributed a monthly column to the magazine Natural History. His essays, written in a lively, conversational style, replete with analogies from his other fields of interest — music, poker and baseball — drew a wide audience. Many of these essays were collected in books such as Ever Since Darwin and The Panda’s Thumbs. Other essay collections included Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes and The Flamingo’s Smile.

In work after work, Gould emphasized the role of chance in the history of life, and argued against the tendency to read the evolutionary record as a story of progress toward some identifiable end. Many characteristics of living things, he noted, arose as by-products of natural selection, not as specific adaptations to environmental circumstances. This placed him in conflict with a school of thought known as selectionism, in which almost all traits are regarded as the result of specific environmental pressures.

1985: The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould, is the fourth volume of collected essays from his monthly column “The View of Life” in Natural History magazine. “Gould discusses the question as to which comes first, the new forms and structures, or the new function or mode of living. He presents the flamingo as an example of animals that have evolved to live ‘upside down’ and how the shape of the flamingo’s beak itself, which has been extensively modified to support the flamingo’s almost unique behavior of feeding upside down, is consistent with and evidence of Darwin’s theory of evolution via natural selection; the bill adapts over time to the new mode of life. In this essay, Gould focuses on the area where his views coincide with the adaptationists, over the structuralists and formalists. In general, he believes both mechanisms are important.”

In his widely quoted 1979 essay, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm,” Gould compared the accidentally arising features of living things to spandrels, an incidental feature of Gothic architecture created to connect larger and more essential structural elements. He compared extreme selectionist views to those of the fatuous philosopher Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s novel Candide. Controversy over the issues raised by Gould’s essay continues to this day.

Harvard awarded Gould the prestigious Alexander Agassiz Professorship in 1982. That same year, he was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, an abdominal cancer often linked to asbestos exposure. He was told the median life expectancy for this diagnosis was eight months. He took the opportunity to write an article about the common misunderstanding of median numbers; such an estimate means that half of all diagnosed patients live longer than eight months. With surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, Gould recovered completely and lived for another 20 years. While undergoing the treatment, he reported, he had used marijuana to alleviate his nausea, and later advocated the drug’s decriminalization for this medical purpose.

1987: Gould in his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1967, he began teaching at Harvard University, where he spent his entire scientific career. At Harvard, he held the titles Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and Professor of Geology. (Deborah Feingold)

Despite his involvement in public controversies, Gould never lost interest in the fundamentals of paleontology, the painstaking examination of the fossil record of life on Earth. In his 1989 book, Wonderful Life, Gould explored the mysteries of the Burgess Shale, an exceptionally rich fossil field in the Canadian Rockies. Most fossils preserve only the skeletons or shells of dead creatures. The Burgess Shale is exceptional for its fossil record of the soft tissues of creatures long extinct, some as old as 505 million years.

1991: Stephen Jay Gould in a park during a visit in Paris, France. In 1996, Gould updated The Mismeasure of Man, rebutting Bell Curve authors Herrnstein and Murray’s theories on race and intelligence. (Ulf Andersen/Getty)

Through his popular books and frequent television appearances, Gould came to be seen as the public face of evolutionary theory. This eventually drew fire from others in the field, who felt that he represented his own views as those of a larger consensus. His colleagues were quick to support him, however, when he used his public profile to defend the teaching of evolution in public schools after it came under attack from religious fundamentalists. Although some in the anti-evolution camp attempted to exploit conflicts between different schools of evolutionary theory, Gould stressed that all responsible scientists in his field were in agreement on the basic principles of evolution through natural selection. In the media and on the witness stand, he argued against alternative explanations — variously known as creationism, creation science or intelligent design — as lacking any grounding in fact. He did not dismiss the validity of religious belief in other areas, such as morality. He portrayed science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria,” modes of thought concerned with entirely separate questions, a position that did not entirely satisfy some of his atheist peers, such as the evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins or philosopher Daniel Dennett.

1993, Amsterdam: Oliver Sacks, Daniel C. Dennett, Stephen Jay Gould, Rupert Sheldrake, Freeman Dyson, and Stephen Toulmin interviewed by Dutch filmmaker and journalist Wim Kayzer for the PBS documentary A Glorious Accident, to “discuss a variety of broad questions ranging from the existence of a soul, to the intellectual versus aesthetic arguments for vegetarianism…to the seemingly ludicrous question of whether the sun thinks.”

Throughout the 1990s, Gould continued to speak out on public issues and to explore a variety of scientific and philosophical questions in such accessible books as Full House and Rocks of Ages. Gould long contended that many characteristics of human psychology were by-products of natural selection, rather than adaptations necessary for survival, a position that placed him in conflict with the sociobiology advocated by his Harvard colleague Edward O. Wilson. The school of thought known as evolutionary psychology also finds selectionist explanations for certain aspects of human behavior, a view that Gould resisted. He did not dismiss the idea that some human traits could be attributed to natural selection, but cautioned the public and his fellow theorists from assuming that they were necessary and unalterable. He particularly objected to the attempt by some writers to identify inherent differences in intelligence between the sexes or between human races. In his 1996 book, The Mismeasure of Man, Gould reviewed the history of such thinking, subjecting current efforts in that vein to severe ridicule.

Gould addresses student delegates and members during the 2000 International Achievement Summit in London.

In 1996, Gould was appointed Vincent Astor Visiting Research Professor of Biology at New York University. From then on he divided his time between homes in Boston and New York City. From 1999 to 2001, Gould served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. At the close of his term, the American Humanist Association named him Humanist of the Year. The following year, he publishedThe Structure of Evolutionary Theory, a summary of his view of the subject and its contending schools.

2006: The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould includes 44 essays representing Gould’s best-known pieces from his books and from essays for Natural History magazine, as well as never before published speeches.

Stephen Jay Gould died at home in New York City in 2002, from a form of lung cancer unrelated to his previous illness. He was survived by his wife, Rhonda Shearer, two stepchildren and two sons from a previous marriage. A selection of his essays was published posthumously as The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould. Six years after his death, the Linnaean Society of London awarded him the Darwin-Wallace medal. His books remain in print, and around the world he remains the most popular, influential and best-loved author on the subject that fascinated him for all six decades of his too-short, brilliantly productive life.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1982

Like a lot of children, the five-year-old Stephen Jay Gould was fascinated by dinosaurs, but in his case that interest led to one of the most remarkable and celebrated careers in modern science.

From his beginnings as a young paleontologist, with field expertise in the multifarious snails of the West Indies, he became a profound and influential evolutionary theorist. The principle of punctuated equilibrium he propounded is one of the most important contributions to our understanding of the origin of species since Charles Darwin first enunciated the theory of natural selection in the 1850s.

An uncommonly entertaining speaker and writer, he illustrated scientific principles with colorful examples from his other lifelong passions: music, poker and baseball. Over 30 years of teaching at Harvard University, Gould used the full panoply of communications media to make the whole world his classroom. His magazine columns, television appearances and more than 20 books made him a leading spokesman for the theory of evolution and for science generally.

On the public stage, he exposed the pseudo-science used to justify prejudice, and championed genuine scientific inquiry whenever it was threatened by religious orthodoxy. In his 60 years on earth, Stephen Jay Gould left a remarkable legacy of scholarship, creativity, and unwavering commitment to freedom of thought.

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In the field of evolutionary theory, you are closely associated with the idea of “punctuated equilibrium.” Is this best understood as a departure from Darwinian theory, or an amendment to it?

Stephen Jay Gould: What we really amended was a subsidiary, but very strong, belief of Darwin’s, and most of his century and most of subsequent evolutionary thought, that change in the large-scale history of life should be cumulative, slow, steady and gradual, based on the transformation of entire populations. I don’t think we amended the basic statements of the theory of natural selection, which is a different area, but that’s still an important part of Darwinian traditions. The theory of punctuated equilibrium argues that most species are stable, most of the time. And that’s true, look at human beings for example. People always ask me, “Where is human evolution going?” But the only answer to that, and it’s not a special answer for humans but for all species, is that successful species don’t go anywhere. They tend to be stable for long periods of time. We’ve only been around for 200,000 years or so, so our period of stability is far from over, that’s the normal state of species. When evolutionary change occurs, it occurs co-incident with an event of speciation, that is, a branching. And although speciation isn’t overnight — it would seem slow by the scale of our lives — it may take thousands of years. Thousands of years, compared to the millions of years of subsequent stability, is a tiny fraction of one percent. So that even an event that is the branching of speciation, which would seem slow by the scale of our lives, in geological parlance it’s instantaneous. And that’s the punctuation in punctuated equilibrium. Punctuated equilibrium argues a geological perspective. Evolutionary change is concentrated in geologically sudden — but actually slow by the scale of our lives — bursts of speciation, and then stability’s the norm for species in-between. That has a lot of implications for evolutionary theory that are quite different from conventional views, including the idea that evolutionary trends are not pushing a ball up an inclined plane by slow and steady and continuous adaptations. More like climbing a staircase, and the reasons why you take a lateral step on the staircase are very different from why you slowly and steadily push the ball up.

In proposing this, you were running contrary to the conventional understanding of Darwinian theory. Was there anything exhilarating or frightening about that?

Stephen Jay Gould: Not really. When we first published the theory in 1972, I don’t think we ourselves understood the full range of its implications. It was an exciting idea for us, relevant to paleontologists, and only later on did we see the range of implications. We realized the implication with respect to Darwin’s view, but we had no sense of the breadth of interpretations that could be raised within a broader scale of evolutionary theory. So in that sense, it wasn’t a eureka moment. We didn’t feel, nor do I today for that matter, that we had fundamentally reformed evolutionary theory. But if we had realized the full range of implications right at the beginning, we wouldn’t have shrunk from them, because that’s what intellectual life’s all about anyway.

Stephen Jay Gould in front of a Tyrannosaurus rex specimen at the American Natural History Museum in New York City. Gould took his first steps toward a career in paleontology as a five-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 rex skeleton awed and scared me,” Gould once wrote. (Wally McNamee)

Could we discuss briefly your reflections on the Burgess Shale and what it represents for you?

Stephen Jay Gould: I wrote this book, A Wonderful Life, which was published in 1989, on the history of this most important fossil deposit. I haven’t done personal research on it, but I think I got a perspective on what it taught us about the history of life that came from my paleoanthropological studies. The Burgess Shale’s a soft-body fauna, that means we have a very rare case of the full preservation of the entire range of fossils. Most fossil localities are only hard parts, and you can’t get a sense of everything that’s lived there. The Burgess Shale is about 550 million years old. It comes from that crucial time right after the so-called Cambrian Explosion. In the Cambrian Explosion, about 570 million years ago, essentially all the major designs of multicellular life made their appearance on Earth for the first time. It was a very accelerated burst of evolution. It wasn’t overnight, it’s millions of years, but even millions of years are just a geological minute compared to the history of life, which runs for billions.

The traditional view of the history of life is that everything moves up and out, that you start from a few simple things, and you move up and out to more complex things. Under that view, the history of life is progressive and predictable, and humans or something like us would eventually emerge. And that’s a comforting notion. The Burgess Shale really proves its falsity, because the great surprise of the Burgess Shale — and by the way, the Burgess Shale was discovered in 1909 but interpreted very conventionally. The man who first found these organisms just shoehorned them all into modern groups and described them as simple, primitive, precursors of forms that came later. But they have been intensively restudied by a team of British paleontologists over the last 25 to 30 years, who’ve completely inverted this interpretation and shown that the Burgess Shale is not a few simple precursive things that came later, but actually represents an enormous initial explosion of evolutionary diversification. So that in fact, there’s more anatomical diversity in the Burgess Shale than there are in all the world’s oceans today. The history of life is a reduction of initial possibilities to just a few surviving groups. Now, each of these surviving groups may generate millions of species, like the insects, but they don’t, again, produce fundamentally new anatomical and body plans, so that in fact the history of life has been limitation. Now you could give a conventional argument to that and say, “All right, there was 100 and only ten survived, but those ten were predictably superior, so there still is a progressive directionality to the history of life.” But in fact, without going into details, a strong argument can be made that the reduction of 100 initial possibilities to ten or so was the analogue of a bingo game, a grand-scale lottery. In fact any ten of the 100 could have made it. If you could rewind the tape of life, erasing what actually happened and let it run again, you’d get a different set of ten each time. There are 17 trillion different combinations of ten that you can take from a group of 100. So if the lottery model is right, any lineage that exists on Earth now is lucky to be here, in that sense that it’s one of the survivors of the great Burgess Shale lottery. Of course we’re one of those lineages, we’re not separate from that reinterpretation.  So under this reinterpretation inspired by the Burgess Shale, we — along with all other lineages — are lucky to be here in that sense. Most subsets of survivors in these hypothetical replays would not include the lineage that gave rise to us.

Looking back, what do you think have been the greatest achievements in your career?

Stephen Jay Gould: I’m not going to be 50 for another few months, so I think I can be spared the need to do such large-scale retrospectives, but in a smaller sense, I have wanted to be a paleontologist since I was five or six years old. I had a very imperfect conception of what it was when I was five. I thought it meant going out West and collecting dinosaur bones all your life. But sometimes I look back and say, “My goodness, I actually did it.” And I’ve been successful enough at it, and I’ve enjoyed it as much as I thought I would, and it’s as fine a field as I’ve ever hoped. So it’s very satisfactory.

How did you become interested in paleontology at such an early age?

Stephen Jay Gould: There are several answers to that. One is the five-year-old’s answer. You go to the Museum of Natural History and the dinosaurs are so awesome, in the literal meaning of that word. That word’s been corrupted by kiddie culture in America today to mean anything that’s a little bit bigger then average, but I mean awesome in the old sense of the term. So that’s a five-year-old’s answer, it’s a perfectly legitimate one. I guess the adult’s answer grows right out of that: the history of life over three-and-a-half billion years is one of the quintessentially fascinating intellectual questions. It’s more then an intellectual question, it relates to so many of the deep issues that are bound to fascinate any curious person, not all of which are answerable by science at all, with questions like, “Why are we here on this earth? What are we related to? How was the earth built? What has its history been through time? What’s been the pageant of change over this immense span of years that have elapsed since the beginning of life?” In that sense paleontology has a great advantage over many fields. It has that intrinsic fascination that will inspire any curious person with a strong interest.

Dr. Stephen Jay Gould’s column, “This View of Life,” was a mainstay of Natural History, starting in January 1974 with “Size and Shape” and concluding with the 300th installment, “I Have Landed,” in the December 2000 issue.

Can you describe that moment as a five-year-old when you were at the Museum of Natural History and it struck you that this is what you wanted to do?

Stephen Jay Gould: Everybody thinks that’s such an interesting apocalyptic moment. If you look at most professions, and ask people why they got into it, they’d probably say, “I was in college, I got fascinated and kind of wandered into it.” Now if you ask paleontologists that, you’d get a very different distribution. First of all, you get a lot of people who got into it just for exactly that reason, they wandered into a geology course that was fascinating. But you find a very strong group who were dinosaur nuts as kids. Either they were rural, country kids who collected fossils in the backyards or the local streambeds, or they were city kids, like me, who went to museums and saw dinosaurs. So even though the story seems to fascinate a lot of people, it’s the most ordinary thing in the world, because there are so many paleontologists who got into their interest as a child through going to museums. It’s the main reason for my commitment to museums.

Keys to success — Passion

My father was a soldier in World War II and I didn’t see him for a couple of years. So when he came back, his mode of re-acquaintance was to take me to every interesting place in New York City, and the Museum of Natural History was of course on the agenda.  So it must have been some time in 1946, when I was four or five — maybe ’47, I’m not sure — and we went to the Museum of Natural History and I took one look at the dinosaurs and they were just so interesting. You ask why. You and everyone asks always why kids are so fascinated with dinosaurs. I don’t really know the answer to that, but it certainly seems persistent. A friend of mine is an eminent child psychologist. He once gave an answer, which may be a little oversimplified, but I think is basically pretty good. He says, “Why are kids fascinated with dinosaurs? That’s simple: big, fierce and extinct,” which they certainly are. Maybe that’s all it was. But I remember standing under the Tyrannosaurus, and it’s pretty big even today — but when you’re five, it’s a lot bigger — and a man sneezed, and I thought the Tyrannosaurus had come to life and was about to devour me. But at that moment, the fear — I just let fascination creep in.