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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: 4 / 8)

Evolutionary Biologist and Paleontologist

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  Stephen Jay Gould

Did someone give you a break that paved the way for you? Did somebody see something in you that gave you the opportunity to get this far?

Stephen Jay Gould: I don't really think so. I don't mean to be arrogant about it, because a lot of it was luck, but it wasn't luck that happened to be mediated by any particular mentor. Paleontology is a small field, and it's not an overly crowded field. It's not an undercrowded field either. But I think someone who's passionate and fascinated and interested and reasonably good at it will make their way. It may not be the best job in the world, but will end up in a perfectly satisfactory situation.

There are people who helped me along enormously, and I would mention Norman Newell, my very dear teacher and mentor, who's still working hard in his mid-80's, coming in every day and publishing terrific stuff. Norman did help me along enormously. He hired me when I was still an undergraduate to do some research for one summer. I studied with him as a graduate student. But if Norman hadn't existed, I would have ended up as a graduate student somewhere else. I don't doubt I would have become a professional paleontologist. I think my internal drive was so great that unless it had been prevented, I don't know that I actively needed to be pulled along. Now anybody can be turned off. I could have been turned off by cruel or simply not understanding parents. I could have been turned off by immense poverty. I could have been turned off by a lousy school system. I could have been turned off by accident, by health problems, any one of a number of things that can derail. But I don't know that I needed to be pulled, all I needed was not to be prevented. But that's not a good model, because there are always obsessives, but obsessives are rare. I was one of those obsessives, every classroom has one or two of them. The reason why we have to improve education in America is that for every obsessive, there are 10 others who need to be pulled, but who are just as smart and just as capable, just as valuable.

Why do you think you were so obsessive?

Stephen Jay Gould: I haven't the slightest idea, I think it's a deep, deep question of temperament.

Temperament is some odd and inextricable mixture of lucky accidents of birth and inheritance and an encouraging environment. I really don't know. You have to have high levels of bodily energy and not everybody has it. I'm not physically strong, but I have very great intellectual energy, I always have. I've been able to work all day. I don't have to get up and get a drink of water or watch TV for half an hour. I can literally sit and work all day once I get going, not everybody can do that. It's not a moral issue. Some people seem to see that as a moral question. It isn't. It's a question of body type and temperament and energy levels. I don't know what makes us what we are.

A lot of people have potential. A lot of people are smart but they don't take it as far as you have.

Stephen Jay Gould: Yeah, but being smart is only the prerequisite. There are all the luck factors on the one hand, and on the other hand of temperament, commitment, energy level. Many of the smartest people I know are not intellectual achievers, although immensely smart, many of them much smarter then I am, in some abstract sense. They don't have drive. They don't have the ambition, the energy, the desire, or they want to do something else, who knows? No, intellectual success is some mixture of a substrate of requisite intelligence, plus the energy and commitment to do it.

How important is luck in a career? How important has luck been to you?

Stephen Jay Gould: It's awfully hard to say.

It'd be nice if we could claim that anyone who's driven enough will rise, but that's not true. Luck has to play an enormous role in anyone's career. How many billion sperm are there per ejaculation? I mean, luck starts with the fact that it was your sperm, rather then the one a millimeter over, that happened to fertilize the egg that gave rise to you. So just an enormous improbability at every stage of it. That you're living in the 20th century and didn't die of some childhood disease that would have got you 200 years ago. That you were born in America and not Ethiopia and therefore had educational opportunities that would be much rarer in other places. That your parents were encouraging. What about the simple issue that you chose a profession you were good at? I have passion, I had drive. Now, when I was five years old I decided on paleontology. Fortunately I have an aptitude for it. Suppose I developed just as strong a passion for a professional career in baseball or singing, which are my other two avocations. I never would have made it. I don't have the voice, I don't have the body. But suppose I'd had that drive, it just would have been tragic, I never could have done it, but I would have had to come to terms. Tragic's too strong a word, but I would have had to come to terms with not making it. Luckily I became fascinated in something I was actually able to do reasonably well. At some point, I suppose you have to credit some mental skill and some internal drive. But there's so much else that's luck surrounding that, and that's true for anyone, any place.

The road to achievement's not always a straight one. What kind of setbacks and frustrations have you encountered?

Stephen Jay Gould: Nothing was given to me. I did not grow up in wealth, and as I said, I didn't have an intellectual background. Nothing was handed to me, I had to make it all myself. But nobody was stopping me either. I can't tell you that it was a great struggle and there were enormous things I had to overcome. I was supported by my parents, I went to a school that adequately encouraged me and gave me a good background. I had a good college experience at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Went to graduate school at Columbia. I enjoyed my work, my thesis turned out well. I was lucky enough, and everything was luck, to get a job here at Harvard which has enormous resources. I got tenure. I deserved it, but the position had to be here. There haven't been enormous obstacles. On the other hand I was handed nothing, everything I have I had to make, but I didn't have to make it through a movieland struggle.

Did you ever doubt the work you were doing, or your ability to do it?

Stephen Jay Gould Interview Photo
Stephen Jay Gould: It's funny. I'm probably as arrogant as the next guy, but I don't consider myself an overly arrogant person. But for someone who is intensely analytical in his writing, which I think I am, I'm very non introspective about myself. It's just a trait of personality. I don't engage in navel gazing. When something is working for me, I just let it happen. So I've never engaged in this enormous self-scrutiny that seems to be part of the life of most intellectuals, at least in the stereotype. I did not have a period of enormous sturm und drang in college. I didn't suffer existential angst that debilitated me for months. I didn't have to go to China or India to find my guru. I knew what I wanted to do and I did it and it's exciting and I'm glad. I'm afraid it's a sort of dull story. I hope that what's exciting is the content of the work.

No China or India, but you had to go to Ohio.

Stephen Jay Gould: Oh, Southwestern Ohio is a fine part of the country, except for the tornadoes.

Let's talk about your professional life. How hard have you had to work to get where you are?

Stephen Jay Gould: Actually, I've never phrased it that way, because that's my joy in life.

People talk in my profession, university teaching, "My teaching load..." That's always struck me as such a strange term, 'cause if you like something it's not a load, it just takes time. So I work all the time. I work every day. I work weekends, I work nights. But some people looking at that from the outside might use that modern term "workaholic," or might see this as obsessive or destructive. But it's not work to me, it's just what I do, that's my life. I also spend a lot of time with my family, and I sing, and go to ball games, and you can find me in my season seat at Fenway Park as often as -- well, I don't mean I have a one-dimensional life. But I basically do work all the time. I don't watch television. But it's not work, it's not work, it's my life. It's what I do. It's what I like to do.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Thomas Edison was quoted as saying that genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. How does that ratio apply to you?

Stephen Jay Gould: I think it's very different in what I do. Edison's work was so much tinkering and trying it out and empirical testing. So much of my work is writing. I don't know what you call the writing, it's true that the actual inspiration, say for writing an essay, the outlining of it is probably a 15-minute to half-hour procedure, then you may spend about 20 hours writing it. But the writing isn't perspiration in the same sense. It's not inspiration, but it's something in between.

Any profession has a vast amount of tedium attached to it. There's no sense not admitting it. If you're passionate about it, tedium can be -- not exactly a joy -- but can be perfectly tolerable. The tedium of a pianist is 10 hours of practice a day or whatever, not all of which is inspirational. The tedium of an experimental scientist is calibrating the machines and doing it over and over again. The tedium of a paleontologist is poring over a microscope, or using a dental pick to chip away the sand grains from the fossil, or looking at the statistical figures in the columns of a computer printout. Every profession has massive tedium, that's certainly true. You cannot be a successful professional (without it). But I think if you're committed to it, as they say, it goes with the territory. It's part of the work. It's a necessary accoutrement to anything that's exciting.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Let's go from Edison to Einstein for a second. He was quoted as saying that knowledge is less important then imagination. Is that true for you?

Stephen Jay Gould: I don't know if that's a meaningful dichotomy.

It's certainly true that knowledge, in the sense of unambiguous documented facts, do not in any simple fashion build up to theory, which is a common misconception. But then, I don't really know where theory comes from. Theory often seems to come out of the head, but it's a head that's been prepared by years of study of the facts as well. What I'm trying to say is, what we call imagination draws upon so much factual experience that it is not as pristine as it seems. The two are so interrelated that I don't quite know how to make the separation. But I think what's behind that famous remark of Einstein's is the recognition that science is not a simple accumulation of facts, and that the accumulation of facts does not lead to theory. And that the imposition of human imagination is always required, and that's certainly true and vitally important.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

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