Sunday, September 8, 2013

Recalling Stephen Jay Gould

Few among my own almost literal contemporaries have had as much influence on my thinking as Stephen Jay Gould, the paleontologist. I’ve noted that before on this blog (here) when discussing his The Mismeasure of Man (1981). The subject of that book is aberrant uses of science—a subject that popped up the other day in one of our morning discussions. I found the book again. It came as one of two in a boxed set. The other was The Panda’s Thumb—probably the best known of Gould’s books written for the general public. I began reading the book again after many years—and discovered that some writings retain their originality, freshness, and still bring new delight.

In the current context, for the first time, I did in about a minute what in the good-old-days might have required a trip to the library. I looked up Stephen Gould’s biography. And it stunned me to realize that he was born some five years after I was (1941) and died at 60 (in 2002). Had I been asked before this lookup, I would have imagined him my elder, my father’s age perhaps—so singular are his accomplishments. Speaking of libraries, the Library of Congress established, as part of the bicentennial celebrations of 2000, an award called Living Legends. Gould received this award in April of 2000; two years and a month later he had passed on, a victim of cancer. The Library was just in time.

The Panda’s Thumb, published in 1980, is a selection of some thirty-one essay, of a total of 300, Gould wrote for the magazine Natural History. Oddly now, in time’s distorting mirror, reading it one cannot help but think that it reads like a strongly-themed biology blog. A kind of aura of unity rises above it rainbow-like, with each essay drawing its light from that aura and in turn contributing to it.

Gould’s chief scientific contribution to evolutionary thought, developed with Niles Eldredge (1943-), is the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Let me hazard to put the essence of this theory into a sentence. It proposes that evolutionary change is rare but, when it happens, very rapid. Evolution happens every now and then, therefore rarely in geological time; but when it happens it does so with a Bang—not with a continuous whimper. The orthodox theory is gradualism.

Gould, of course, belongs to the originals—who are rarely celebrated by the always fossilized orthodoxy of their times. The best proof that Gould had something real to say is to note that Richard Dawkins (he of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, among others) dismisses Gould’s theory as a “minor gloss” on evolutionary thought.

1 comment:

  1. I understand this business of imagining others to be the elders: those whom we imagine the wiser, the smarter, the more worldly-wise.

    What a quaint hold-over from our youth!