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If you like Stephen Jay Gould's story, you might also like:
Lee Berger,
Sylvia Earle,
Jane Goodall,
Donald C. Johanson,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Ernst Mayr,
Richard E. Schultes,
John Sulston,
James D. Watson,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

Stephen Jay Gould's recommended reading: The Little Engine That Could

Related Links:
SJG Archive
Gould at Amazon
This View of Life
McLean v. Arkansas

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Stephen Jay Gould
Stephen Jay Gould
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Stephen Jay Gould Interview (page: 2 / 8)

Evolutionary Biologist and Paleontologist

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  Stephen Jay Gould

As a child, did you dream about what you might achieve someday?

Stephen Jay Gould: I had such an imperfect notion of what paleontology was. I didn't come from an academic or intellectual family. I didn't have role models in that sense. So I didn't even know the word paleontologist for a while. Every kid knows it today, but there wasn't that kind of media-inspired dinosaur fascination in the late '40s. I knew I wanted to spend my life studying them somehow. But I didn't know that there were professors in universities, and that you could write books and papers and give talks and teach. I guess all I thought about was collecting dinosaurs in deserts, and working in museums stringing bones together.

You say you didn't have academic role models, but as a child, what person inspired you or motivated you?

Stephen Jay Gould: Just people in my immediate family. We didn't come from that kind of background where I actually knew leaders or even any professionals in those fields.

I had a number of relatives who encouraged my interest in a variety of ways, particularly my father and mother and all my immediate family. My Uncle Morty is still alive in Rochester at age 92, and was head violist at the Rochester Symphony. He was sort of the family intellectual. But then of course, I read. People sort of assume that anyone who is reasonably successful later must have been a bookish intellectual as a kid, and that really wasn't true with me. I spent most of my afternoons, as I remember it, playing stickball or poker, depending on the weather. But I did a certain amount of reading, and reading works of E.H. Colbert, who was the curator of dinosaurs at the museum and later was my teacher. Inspiring? I don't know, at least they were the books on dinosaurs that were available. Then when I got a little older, I read George Gaylord Simpson, who was the best writer and leading paleontologist of that generation.

I don't know that there's any one person I could particularly specify. My father would be the most important.

What was your parents' reaction to your wanting to be a paleontologist?

Stephen Jay Gould: It was supportive. Nobody knew what it was really. My father took me to museums, and he knew the dinosaurs there were interesting, but I guess it was more a puzzle then anything else.

It is after all a fairly standard sequence in American history, isn't it? My grandparents were Eastern European immigrants who went through Ellis Island like everybody else, and you have this three-generational sequence. My grandparents were in the clothing business, in the sweatshops in New York, and then the next generation, my parents, sort of scratch their way into the middle classes, but don't become professionals or get a college education. And then the next generation -- me -- goes on to professional life.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

As you grew older and began to make a mark in your field, what was your parents' reaction?

Stephen Jay Gould: They were always very supportive. Puzzle is the wrong word.

Paleontology seemed an oddity. It wasn't the usual path of that third generation that makes it into the professions. Law and medicine is probably more common, but they were totally supportive. I somehow always knew I was going to go to college and be a professional of some sort. I had no idea what college was. It was kind of scary. I thought you had to study all day, which in fact you do. But my grandparents, who were sort of old country, Hungarian and Yiddish speakers -- it was, if anything, more of a puzzle, but it sounded wonderful -- they were, again, supportive. I remember my grandfather telling me I really ought to go to MIT, because that's the one place he knew about that was a technical education. Nothing to do with paleontology, but they thought it was fine. They were very happy to see a grandchild who was obviously intellectually fascinated, and who was going to have the opportunities that they had never had.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

What was grade school like for you?

Stephen Jay Gould: I went to a standard public school in New York City, PS 26 -- they have numbers there -- in Queens. But you know, the New York City public school system -- for whatever trouble it's in now, and there are still pockets of great excellence in it -- was really a wonderful system in the '40s and '50s. It was still working, it was that odd combination of -- somewhat overly stereotypical, and I don't really mean it this way -- but it was sort of tough, old-fashioned Irish teachers and enormously warm-hearted Jewish teachers, and many others. Many of whom had gotten their jobs in the '30s, right in the heart of the Depression when there was no work available, and absolutely the best people could be hired for these jobs. Many of them stayed with it. A lot of them were tough and cynical, but when there was a good student, they could be inspired. I was lucky, I had very good teachers. I dedicated one of my books, The Panda's Thumb, to my third, fifth and sixth grade teachers. Now you notice my fourth grade teacher was not included. You don't have good ones every year! It wasn't especially enriched education in any modern sense of what you might get in an elite private school, but yeah, I got a good, solid education. I learned grammar, which I'm not sure they teach anymore. I got a good, solid foundation in all sorts of things, and there was no discouragement and I've got no complaints.

How did these teachers inspire you? Was it something they said? Was it something they gave you to read?

Stephen Jay Gould Interview Photo
Stephen Jay Gould: I don't know if they inspired me. They basically didn't suppress intellectual interests, which to me is the most important thing. The closest to inspiration was my beloved fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Ponti, who I'm delighted lived long enough to get that book's dedication. I exchanged Christmas cards with her for the rest of her life. She was a wonderful woman. I think the main way she inspired was by respecting students' interests. She herself knew very little science. Science was not formally taught at all, as far as I can remember, at grade school level. She realized there were a group of us who were interested in science, so she would let us sit by ourselves in the back of the classroom once a week for a couple hours, and she got books for us and discussed science. So I suppose she was a very good model for good students.

How did you get along with your classmates? What kind of kid were you? Were you the kid who was always reading?

Stephen Jay Gould: No, I wasn't. I mostly played punchball in the schoolyard during recess. It was a very diverse school. There were the tough kids that I didn't get along with, but there was a reasonable -- intellectual is perhaps not the right word for fourth and sixth graders -- let's say a group of kids who were serious enough about school, or who certainly knew how to have fun, and that was my crowd. I wasn't an outsider, I wasn't a central insider either.

Did you ever want to be a fireman or a policeman or a ballplayer?

Stephen Jay Gould Interview Photo
Stephen Jay Gould: Oh sure. But I knew I didn't have the body to be a ballplayer, and anyways, since Joe DiMaggio retired, Mickey Mantle took over, and that was the end of my dreams of playing center field in New York.

What was your favorite subject in school? Do you remember that?

Stephen Jay Gould: We're still talking about grade school? History. A great subject, still the best subject that's taught.

What interested you about history?

Stephen Jay Gould: Pageant, change, influence on today, determination of modern patterns through historical change. The recognition that if things had gone just a little bit differently, your life would be massively different from the way it actually is.

Did paleontology lead you to history or the other way around?

Stephen Jay Gould: No, I think I saw it was separate. I'm not sure I saw it related at all at that time.

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This page last revised on Dec 02, 2009 19:12 EDT