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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: 5 / 8)

Evolutionary Biologist and Paleontologist

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  Stephen Jay Gould

Do you ever get bored with what you're doing?

Stephen Jay Gould: No. Of course, as I said, every field has its tedium and tedium is boring. You just have to do it.

For example, what's tedium for you?

Stephen Jay Gould: Tedium is writing a paper and writing it fast 'cause the ideas are flowing out, and then realizing that there are a hundred bibliographical citations that you then have to find, that you have to get the journal title right and the volume number right and the beginning and the end page of each journal entry.

What's your typical work day like?

Stephen Jay Gould Interview Photo
Stephen Jay Gould: There isn't one, because I do too many different things. It depends whether I'm in the middle of a teaching term or not. If it's a teaching term, most of the day is involved in lecturing and seeing students. If it's not, then it's either writing or researching. Since I do three very different things, I think that's why I've been able to keep this passion going for all of these. If I only did one over and over, and the same thing every day, maybe I would have dried up by now. But I do my technical work on the evolution of land snails, I do my technical theoretical work on the structure of evolutionary theory, and then I do this popular writing, the monthly essays for Natural History. It very much depends on what I'm doing. If I'm writing a Natural History essay, I'll stay home and write on my old 1920 Smith-Corona typewriter with the right hand carriage throw and write it. If I'm doing snail work, I might come in here and pore over some tables of data. If I'm doing evolutionary theory work, it's usually library material. I'll be sitting in a library or have the books at home. So it very much depends on what I'm doing.

Is there anything that you most look forward to doing, or most look forward to not doing?

Stephen Jay Gould: No. I think the key to it is the mixture, so that if I told you that essays are the most exciting thing, it was probably just because I haven't written one for a couple of weeks. After I've just finished one, I'll probably be glad to be through with it and onto something else. I think it is a mixture that keeps things fresh.

Do you ever sit here wishing that you were on some Caribbean island, on your hands and knees digging through the dirt?

Stephen Jay Gould: Sure. But then if I were there, when the rain storms hit and the mosquitoes came out, I'd be wishing I was here.

When you think of your travels and your field investigations, are there experiences that come to mind that are particularly memorable for you?

Stephen Jay Gould Interview Photo
Stephen Jay Gould: Oh, everybody has field stories. My fieldwork is not highly romantic or arduous as field stories go. It's mostly in the Bahamas. People laugh when they hear that. People totally misunderstand. Everybody's vision of the Bahamas is the beaches of Nassau. Mostly, the Bahamas are not that. They're not tourist paradises by any means. They're low, scrubby, hot, mosquito-infested islands, but they're not arduous, either. There isn't jungle or topography or unfriendly people with weapons, and some of the problems you run into in other parts of the world. But as I said, everybody has field stories. My best is probably the time we were shot at by drug runners in North Andros, who were actually shooting at people in the next motel room. It was a little too close for comfort.

I'll say. So when you're not getting shot at by drug runners, you're digging for snails. Why did you choose to specialize in the land snail?

Stephen Jay Gould: Because my main interest technically is in the study of variation, and how variation within a species is converted into differences between species, which is the stuff of evolution. The snail I study, named cerion, has some 600 named species. They're not all valid, but the fact those names exist indicate what it is about cerion that compels my attention. Namely, it's the most variable land snail in the entire world in terms of shell form. If we ever make sense of why all that variation exists, and how it is expressed in evolutionary changes, we'll have learned something about how evolution happens, which is my main concern.

Is that something you can envision, making sense of it?

Stephen Jay Gould: Not in its entirety, because it's too big a problem for one person in a lifetime. But I think I and the people I work with have succeeded in making sense of small portions of it, and that's very satisfying.

If you explain it to someone who knows nothing about paleontology, or land snails, how would you explain to them what's so exciting about this?

Stephen Jay Gould: Oh, I would do it first and foremost by talking about why evolution itself is quintessentially interesting.

Here we are as human beings on this earth. We can perceive that some animals, like gorillas and chimps, are close to us in some sense, and others, like corals and slime molds, aren't. But we also sense some relationship. We know that there are ecological interactions. We can go out and see fossils and know there's been a history, and we're trying to make sense of it. We want to know why we're here. To a large extent it is a grand-scale accident that we're here. Evolution has oddly contingent pathways, and we never run the same way twice. If you could go back 500 million years and run the tape of life again, you wouldn't get human beings, and you probably wouldn't get anything conscious. So there are aspects of that question that don't have ready answers in terms of evolutionary theory. But evolutionary theory is the body of knowledge and information that makes sense of these grand questions about the history of life, which have to fascinate any thinking person. Now you ask, "Why snails?" It's a different group. Once you decide that it's the abstraction of evolutionary theory that fascinates you, the task of science is to exemplify abstractions and work towards getting more adequate ones, through a study of the actual facts of nature. Which means, hence, biologists have obeyed this maxim ever since Aristotle thought about the universe but chose to dissect the squid in order to figure out how things work. You choose a group of organisms, you acquire some expertise. And the reason why I chose land snails is their enormous variability, their ease of collection, their accessibility, their good fossil record, the fact that their growth is recorded in their shell. I'm very interested in the relationship between the growth of an individual, from embryo to adulthood, and the evolution of its lineage. But in most organisms you can't tell. If you have a human skeletal fossil, you don't know what that person was like as a child, whereas a snail shell is a record of the entire growth of the animal from babyhood on. The early parts of the shell are its juvenile form. So in snails you can study the growth of an individual and relate it to the evolution of its lineage.

How did you come to study the land snail in the first place?

Stephen Jay Gould: Everything's accidental. In fact, I didn't start in the Bahamas, I started in Bermuda. And that came about because I went to Antioch College, which is a work-study school. One of the jobs I had was with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. I was basically bottle washer, gofer, I was the lowest of the low on the scientific staff, but it was a very exciting job. We docked in Bermuda, that's just where we refueled in the midst of various scientific cruises to study water chemistry and water flows in the Gulf Stream. Since I was there, and interested in paleontology, and we had a few days, and frequenting the bars wasn't my idea of spending those few days, I went out and looked around. What was there in the fossil record? The answer basically is, there's a wonderful record of land snails over the last few hundred thousand years of Ice Age fluctuations in this part of the world, in Bermuda, and I collected some stuff. I might not have ever done anything with it except when I got back to Antioch, it turned out, as sheer happenstance, that a man named Swinnerton, who had been a geology professor at Antioch in the '30s, had worked on Bermuda. He'd been the research assistant of a man named Robert Sayles, who had done the major tape on the geology in Bermuda. And Swinnerton's and Sayles's collection of snails, I still don't know why, ended up in Antioch College and I found it. I remember just finding it one day, wrapped in old newspapers from the 1940s. In fact, I pulled out a newspaper and the headline was "Red Army Drives for Warsaw" -- it was 1943 or 1944 -- which I posted on the door in the student union building, and I think it scared several people for a moment, until they saw the date. And underneath was this collection of snails, so I worked on them for my senior undergraduate thesis at Antioch College. It just graduated from there into a Ph.D. project at Columbia. But if I'd never worked for Woods Hole, or docked in Bermuda, or found this collection of snail specimens, I'd have done something else. I don't know that my career would have been much different, but I probably wouldn't have worked on these creatures.

That brings us to the role of accidents in life. To what extent can a young person take that into account?

Stephen Jay Gould: I certainly don't mean to give the impression at all that there's so much accident in the world that the most you can do is sit back and hope it goes your way. I don't think that's it at all. I think it was meant to be that I was going to become a paleontologist, and I'll even be so arrogant as to say that it was meant to be that I was going to succeed at it, given my temperament, whatever intellectual skills I possess and my obsessive interest and love of it all. I think it was going to happen. But what group I worked on, whether I was here or at Michigan or in England for that matter, that's where luck enters, in the details. But I think you can have a great deal of control and influence upon the broad pathway.

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