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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,
Oliver Sacks,
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: 3 / 8)

Evolutionary Biologist and Paleontologist

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  Stephen Jay Gould

Looking back on grade school, is there anything that you wished you had done differently?

Stephen Jay Gould: I don't think so. I was in the New York City public school system right through high school. I went to junior high school and to Jamaica High School. It was a solid but not overly inspiring education. I have no complaints. I got a good background, but for someone like myself who had a real fascination for something quite specific, it wasn't going to be school that nurtured it anyway. It was going to be an outside, private fascination.

Probably the most important thing I did, if I were to cite one incident -- and this has nothing to do with paleontology in a direct sense, but in another way it has everything to do with career -- was singing in the All-City High School Chorus. I was always interested in choral singing, in fact I still sing. It was a total fluke. In fact, the chorus teacher made a mistake. There was this chorus which was composed of the best singers from all the high schools, and each public high school was allocated a few audition try-out passes, so to speak. My chorus director had two. I was in the junior chorus, the senior chorus had more. And he called my name by mistake -- there was one obvious person who got one of the tickets -- and I was very pleased. I went up to get the ticket and he suddenly realized he'd made a mistake, but being a sensitive man -- I've always been grateful for this -- he didn't embarrass me by saying, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean you." He just let it happen, he gave me the ticket. I went down, I tried out, I actually got in. I was by no means in the top half of this chorus, but the chorus was then led by a man named Peter Wilhousky, who was director of music for the City of New York, one of the great choral conductors of America. He was an old Polish or Russian aristocrat, and he just had a fierce belief in excellence. He was also tough as could be, and he'd throw people out at a moment's notice. He's not a nice man, I don't mean that. Niceness is not always what you want. I mean, you need a lot of it, but before I met Wilhousky I had just never even encountered the notion that genuine professional excellence was attainable by high school students. And yet he would settle for nothing else. We were the best singers in the high school system in the city, and we were damned well going to turn out a professional quality concert, which we gave each year in Carnegie Hall. He wasn't even going to consider anything else, he just didn't even talk about it. You were going to do that, and I'm going to do it all, that's all there was to it. And that was a very inspirational message. I don't know that my life would have been different. I think I had enough internal drive to do what I wanted to do, but to see that institutionalization of genuine excellence at age 15, 16, was very important to me. Now I got into that chorus by sheer good fortune, as I've told you the story. That's how lives work anyway.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Can you remember books that influenced you when you were growing up? What books had an impact on you?

Stephen Jay Gould: You probably expect, when you interview these intellectuals, they're going to tell you, "When I was eight, I read War and Peace, and when I was ten I read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason on the subway, holding the strap on one hand, the book in the other. I think probably the book that first inspired me was The Little Engine That Could, something like that. And then after that, it was probably Joe DiMaggio's Lucky to be a Yankee, which is one of those cardboard sports books, but inspirational in its own way. I was really not a great reader. I'm not against reading by any means. Had there been, when I was a kid, the literature that now exists, for example, on paleontology, dinosaurs, I would have a lot more to tell you. But there was very little then. Roy Chapman Anders had a book called All About Dinosaurs, but you could scarcely call it inspirational. It was informative. Colbert had a couple dinosaur books. When I got a little older, George Simpson's Meaning of Evolution inspired me, but I was probably 14 or 15 by the time I read it. I always enjoyed the reading we got in school. I liked the Norse myths more then the Greek myths. I liked the Odyssey, but I didn't have a policy of sitting alone in my room and reading great novels. I even liked Tale of Two Cities and Julius Caesar and Return of the Native and Silas Marner and all these things we had to read in school that most kids hated. I always essentially liked everything, I just loved being in school.

It was traditional when you're eight or nine years old to claim that you hated school, but when everybody shouted, "No more teachers, no more books," I probably sang along with them, but in fact I always liked going to school and liked what I read. It's only later, I think, in college, when I started doing more serious reading. I remember loving James Joyce's Ulysses when I first read it, though in retrospect, at age 19 or 20 when I read it, I scarcely understood it. I simply wasn't able to sympathize with the way the life of a 40-year-old man works during the day. I just wasn't in tune with it, didn't understand a lot of it. I loved the Dostoyevsky novels. And then of course there's Darwin, but I didn't read Darwin in the original until well into college. In a sense I knew its major content before I read him, so I couldn't say it was inspirational in that sense. It was good to read.

What was the first book on paleontology that you read?

Stephen Jay Gould: There must have been that Roy Chapman Andrews's All About Dinosaurs but it was just a pot boiler kiddie book. It was informative, it whetted my interest, it kept me going, but the skeletons in the museum were much more important then any book I ever got my hands on, because there wasn't much in the way of books. It would be different now. Now there's an enormous literature, and some of it's very good, on dinosaurs. There wasn't then. There was Alley Oop riding a brontosaurus and there was King Kong and that was about it.

Victor Mature in One Million B.C.?

Stephen Jay Gould: Hey, that's right! That was an okay film.

We have to ask, why is Joe DiMaggio such a personal hero of yours? What is it about DiMaggio?

Stephen Jay Gould: Oh, that's actually pretty easy to answer, and I think it does embody an important lesson for intellectuals.

Joe DiMaggio -- and you see, I was only six or seven when I first saw him play, I could not articulate any of these general principles. But if you understood the game of baseball, and I think I did, even when I was six or seven, you just had to see that DiMaggio was special, that he shone in a certain way. As did Ted Williams and a few others. He shone as a result of his commitment to excellence, I don't know what else to say. He had natural gifts to be sure, as great intellectuals have natural mental gifts. But to watch DiMaggio, to watch his own obsessiveness, to watch the grace of his movements, to watch his commitment, this lack of laziness, this vigilance, this need to get everything just as good as he possibly could. The fact that he retired when he still had several years to play at high salaries, because he saw his skills eroding, and he couldn't bear to hang on beyond, even though economically that might have made sense. He was -- is -- a remarkable, prideful man, committed to excellence. Now here's the point. Too many intellectuals think that sports figures who are successful do it by brawn, whereas intellectuals do it by brain, and it's just lucky natural gifts. But that's nonsense. You have to have natural gifts, and you have to have it to do intellectual work also. But there's so much more to it. There is everything about temperament that leads to commitment to excellence. So what I learned from DiMaggio, I couldn't have put in words when I was eight, but I could see it visually, was that this commitment is not only a path to success, but is a valid way of constituting a life. I think that can be gotten as well from a sports figure as from a mental intellectual.

Stephen Jay Gould Interview Photo
Stephen Jay Gould Interview Photo

We understand you met DiMaggio a few years ago. If you could have a conversation with someone else, someone famous outside your field, who would you like to talk to?

Stephen Jay Gould: Let's see, can you give me all of history?

Yeah, we'll give you all of history.

Stephen Jay Gould: It would have to be somebody from a very different culture, like Aristotle, 'cause it would be so fascinating to know what it's like to be a tutor to Alexander the Great. Or Michelangelo, to see what cricks he got in his neck while he was painting the Sistine Chapel. It would have to be great to meet achievers who lived in totally different cultures, to try and get some sense of their motivations, to see if there really is commonality in commitment across the centuries. I would expect there is, but it'd be nice to know. In our own time, a lot of the people I greatly respect, I've been fortunate enough to meet, and I haven't been disappointed.

Regardless of the field, whether it's DiMaggio playing center field, or a Stephen Jay Gould expanding our understanding of evolutionary science, what personal characteristics do you think are most important to success, to achievement?

Stephen Jay Gould: First you have to be fortunate to have whatever mental aptitudes are necessary for your choice. As I said, I have two other great loves besides paleontology, choral music and baseball, and a lot of others. But I would never have made it in either of those fields. I don't have the bodily skills to be a good ballplayer, and as much as I love choral singing, I don't have the soloistic voice. I could have got better with training, I never would have made it as a professional. I think had I been given a gift of voice, I probably would have tried to become an opera singer, and would have been delighted if it had worked out. So clearly, there has to be the good fortune of whatever you bring into the world by your constitution and upbringing. You don't have a whole lot of control over that, so I don't know how much control you have over aspects of temperament, but clearly you have substantial control. If there were no control, you wouldn't even be here talking about it, because it would be determined clearly, and obviously it isn't.

Most people who are successful, they have to have the good fortune of the mental or physical gifts. Beyond that, you construct it yourself, out of your temperament and your desire. I think what you need to have is energy, and commitment to excellence. If you're willing to be caught up in the commercialization of mass culture, you're never going to make it, and too many people get caught up in it. You have to be independent, individualistic and committed to excellence. I don't really know what all of that means, and I think if there's anything common to people of achievement, it's that the gifts of brain or body are always there. But they're only a prerequisite, and if you don't have them, you don't get there, but the common factor is obsessive personal commitment. It's what we call drive or energy or desire or enthusiasm.

I don't know how you manufacture it, but surely it is subject to some motivation, it's not just born within you. For example, in my own field, these names will be familiar to most people.

The three greatest evolutionists, the men who were my models of the generation before me, were: Theodosius Dobzhansky, who's a geneticist; Ernst Mayr, a taxonomist who's still with us, in fact is in this very building, working away at age 86; and George Gaylord Simpson, a paleontologist. And I can't imagine three more different people. I just can't envision this. Their styles are different, their personalities are different. Dobzhansky was a wonderfully ebullient, buoyant person. He'd grab you, put his arms around you, say "How are you?" And that's not at all like me. Simpson was a sort of quiet, almost dyspeptic, cynical kind of man who was very hard to get close to. Ernst Myer's a classical German intellectual. He's very rigorous and precise, very kind, very formal. Now I can't imagine three more different personality types. I'm not sure they got along personally very well with each other. I don't think they had great battles either, but I'll tell you, there's one thing they had in common. The one thing they had absolutely in common, every one of those men worked every day of his life to the very end and the one of the three that's still with us is still doing it in his mid-80s. None of them knew how to stop, none of them could even conceive of stopping. All of them had absolute, total commitment. They knew that what they were doing was fascinating, they were committed to it. That was their life's work. Their styles couldn't have been more different, their personalities couldn't have more been different, but the one thing they had was this almost larger than life commitment. They knew what they were doing was important and fascinating and it kept them going. The day people like that stop working is the day they die.

And where did you get that commitment, that kind of drive?

Stephen Jay Gould: I don't know. All I can tell you is it wasn't turned off. 'Cause I think it is turnable off in almost anyone.

If a young man or woman came to you and said, "Professor Gould, give me some advice about how I can do something meaningful with my life..."

Stephen Jay Gould: Play them Frank Sinatra's "I Did It My Way." That's a somewhat facetious comment, but what I mean to embody by that is the notion that you do have to really follow your own path and personal interest. Whatever it takes to realize that excellence is not the common stream, that what you see around you, is for the most part, mediocrity and commercialism. There are immediate rewards there, including monetary ones, but that it doesn't lead to that kind of achievement. How you create the commitment to excellence, I don't really know. I believe it can be created by good teaching, by inspirational literature, by the examples of people. And I certainly believe that for those who have it, it can be easily turned off. To me, the main value of education is not to inspire in it others, 'cause that's hard to do, but to keep it alive in the substantial fraction of the population who have it.

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