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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: 7 / 8)

Evolutionary Biologist and Paleontologist

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  Stephen Jay Gould

You made reference to the fact that we all have tragedies in our lives, and indeed we do. How have you been affected by the tragedies in your life?

Stephen Jay Gould: Well, that's autobiography for the most part, which as a private person I don't particularly choose to discuss. Everybody has them. What can you say? There are deaths, there are family disappointments. As a compassionate human being, you give them the attention, and you give the people involved the love and support they need. You try your best to do that. But you then have to go on, 'cause all you've got is this life.

Is that belief reinforced by your own experience with cancer?

Stephen Jay Gould: I don't call that a tragedy. It was a derailment for a couple of years.

Nothing much to say that's beyond the personal that I don't choose to discuss. I was real sick for about a year and a half, and through some combination of good medicine and a little bit of determination, I got better, thank goodness. There's this great desire, since it was pretty miserable and I had to spend a lot of time struggling to get well, to think there was something worthwhile that came out of it. That's what people ask me all the time. "Well, what did you learn having to change the direction of your life?" I wish I could say that it did, since I had to spend the time and there was a certain amount of pain and suffering involved in it. I would like to say, "Well, it changed everything. I got a great insight to my whole life." But it wasn't. Basically it was a most unwelcome interruption that had to be dealt with. I don't know what else to say about it.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

You dealt with it and you moved on?

Stephen Jay Gould: Yeah. I wrote one little article, which is not in the confessional mode at all. It's an article about statistics. It's probably the only thing I'll ever write about it.

And nothing about it either affirmed or gave you any second thoughts about your life and your career?

Stephen Jay Gould: No. If it had gone the other way and I realized I was going to die, if I knew I had a few months left, then probably for those months I might have done something different then I would have done with those months otherwise. I might have tried to write some summation. Who knows? It didn't happen. Insofar as that didn't happen, although it was scheduled to, all it was was an interruption.

What part of your life gives you the most satisfaction, your personal life or your professional life? Can you separate them?

Stephen Jay Gould: No, I don't think you can.

In a sense you have to separate them because it's so important that the family be insulated from public reputation, particularly the children, and to that extent, yes they are quite separate. I don't bring work home. I do bring work home in the sense that I do sit in my little office at home and work a lot. But I don't -- or I try very hard not to -- let it take away from family time. But again, for someone who pretty much does work all the time, it's obvious to my children, for example, that that's what I'm doing. And if you ask me, have I helped my son along in his studies, I don't know that I sit with him for hours on his homework. But I hope that just his seeing what I do will be some testimony to the value of an intellectual life.

Have you achieved that balance between a career, your profession, and your family and personal life?

Stephen Jay Gould: Yeah. I don't think there's any one answer to that. There's no formula, and many people who are high achievers do a very bad job of it. But beyond hoping that you're a sensitive enough person, and not so utterly selfish a person that you'll never consider other things beyond your work, there's some personal formula of balancing. All I can say is that if you're sensitive enough, and love your family enough, and respect both sides of your life enough, you'll find a good balance. There's no formula, because if there were a formula, people would be much better at it. And as I said, some of the smartest people in the world have done very badly at it. So I don't think there's a clear answer.

What are the most valuable lessons you have learned outside the classroom?

Stephen Jay Gould: The classroom is part of life. There's this odd notion that the classroom is a separate realm. I don't really know that it is. So much of what are basically ethical beliefs keep me going, or are a result of this temperament and this intellectual energy I have for whatever reason. I guess what distresses me a great deal about current life in America... but I'm not gonna sound like someone who talks about the "good old days." I don't believe the old days were much better.

I think there's a lot of mythology about the past. But it is certainly true that there are very distressing trends towards mediocrity and regimentation -- I think almost inevitably -- an electronically dependent, passive world, where hundreds of millions of people are seeing the same things, and are subject to the blandishments of advertisers over the national media. Television is a fundamentally passive exercise. Wouldn't have to be used that way. It's bound to be, and there are paradoxes. Now we can all be consumers of music. You can put on MTV. In the 19th century, if you lived on the prairie, you had to make your own music with your violin or your voices. On the other hand, I'm not gonna long for the good old days, because I'll bet you if you actually calculated it out, there are more people making their own music now than ever before, because musical training is wider. There are hundreds of homes in any city where people at this time of the year are singing Christmas carols or playing their recorders or strumming their guitars. So I don't think it's worse, but certainly there are great tendencies to mediocrity and mass commercialization. If an intellectual has any duty, it's to stress the value of individualistic excellence. That's all we can do. We're always gonna be a minority. There's no doubt, I think, we always have been a minority, and if anything we're a stronger minority. But that's our one job, is to stress non-compromise in the search for excellence, and it's to stress doing it in a manner that has personal integrity and is not copycat, or is not overly easy, or is not merely for commercial success.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

I suppose that's the simplest answer I can give. The other one of course is the issue of life's accidents and contingencies. It may be really good to have plans for 20 or 30 years, but we don't know what 20 or 30 years from now is gonna be like, and none of us can have any idea what we'll be like or whether we'll be here. So if you have that belief, you've gotta do it now. You've gotta do it every day, even just a little bit, because if your plans are for 30 years down the road you may wake up 20 years from now dead, and you never have a chance to do it.

What do you see as the responsibility to society of someone in your field? As a paleontologist, aside from your academic responsibilities and professional integrity as a scientist, do you have a social responsibility, on environmental issues for example?

Stephen Jay Gould Interview Photo
Stephen Jay Gould: Everybody has. I don't think social responsibility comes from being a scientist per se. Scientists study the factual content of the world. Factual contents don't have moral responsibilities attached to them. The reason why everybody has moral responsibilities is they are human beings. Your moral responsibility comes from your status as a human being, not from your expertise as a scientist. Given that expertise as a scientist, since you have moral responsibilities as a human being, you will use your scientific knowledge in the interests of making moral decisions. Now scientific knowledge, which is factual knowledge, can't specify moral decisions -- because they're just different realms. The facts of the world don't tell you what you want to do, but facts are relevant to the context in which ethical decisions are made. On questions of environment, I think paleontologists do have a perspective that's valuable. It doesn't answer moral questions, but it's a perspective. Namely, that the world has been here four-and-a-half billion years, humans only for a couple hundred thousand. We've occupied the earth for some tiny fraction of one percent of it's total time. We'd like to think of ourselves as ultimately powerful but in fact that power is quite limited.

We can blow ourselves up, we can destroy our cities, we can wreck our culture, but I don't think we can do a lot to the planet. Many people in the environmental movement say that we've gotta save the environment because humans can wreck permanently this planet, and I don't think we can do that. We can kill ourselves, the planet will cough, and on it's own time scale -- two million years down the road, which is inconceivable for us, but it's a second to the history of the planet -- the planet will recover. We worry about the greenhouse, as we should, because it will be a great difficulty to our cultures. Consider only the very simple issue that most of our cities -- our great cities -- are at sea level, because they were ports and harbors. If we have a greenhouse and melt the ice caps, most of our major cities will be drowned. Clearly these are important issues to us, but does the planet care? No. I don't think the planet cares. You know, there are many times in the past when the earth has been much warmer than even the worst greenhouse could conceivably bring about on earth, and the planet's been happy.

There could be a different regime, with different kinds of life, no ice caps, or climates that have gone closer to the poles than they do now. The planet will recover. We don't have that kind of power. The reason why we should be concerned with environmental issues is personal, but not in the selfish sense of our own lives. We have a legitimate parochial interest in our own species.

It's taken three-and-a-half billion years for us to get here. We weren't ordained to be. We weren't predictable. If you play the history of life again, we'd never arise. Nonetheless, we have this very rich history. Our existence is tenuous and tentative. And if we blow ourselves up, that's it. We have moral responsibilities towards ourselves, towards the time scale of our lives, towards our children and children's children. On the timescale of hundreds and thousands of years, we have responsibilities to other species that share the planet with us, that are inextricably tied with us in this ecological web of life. But the notion that environmental concerns must exist because we somehow are going to blow up the earth, I don't think is right. I think that's the paleontological time scale. The human time scale, which is hundreds to thousands of years, is the real danger, and there we do have power. We have power over ourselves, and that's what we need to watch out.

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