May 2002


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Mon, 20 May 2002 15:22:34 -0400
Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Louis Proyect <[log in to unmask]>
Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
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NY Times, May 20, 2002

Stephen Jay Gould, Biologist and Theorist on Evolution, Dies at 60

Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary theorist at Harvard University
whose lectures, research and prolific output of essays helped to
reinvigorate the field of paleontology, died today at his home in
Manhattan. He was 60 years old. The cause was adenocarcinoma, his
wife, Rhonda Roland Schearer, said.

Perhaps the most influential and best known evolutionary biologist
since Charles Darwin, Dr. Gould touched off numerous debates by
challenging scientists to rethink evolutionary patterns and
processes. He is credited with bringing a forsaken paleontological
perspective to the evolutionary mainstream.

Dr. Gould achieved a fame unprecedented among modern evolutionary
biologists. The closest thing to a household name in the field, he
became part of mainstream iconography when he was depicted in cartoon
form on "The Simpsons." Renovations of his SoHo loft in Manhattan
were featured in a glowing article in Architectural Digest.

Famed for both brilliance and arrogance, Dr. Gould was the object of
admiration and jealousy, both revered and reviled by colleagues.

Outside the academy, Dr. Gould was almost universally adored. In his
column in Natural History magazine, he employed a voice that was a
successful combination of learned Harvard professor and
baseball-loving everyman. The Cal Ripken of essayists, he produced a
meditation for each of 300 consecutive issues starting in 1974 and
ending in 2001. Many were collected into books like "Bully for

Born on Sept. 10, 1941 in New York City, Dr. Gould took his first
steps toward a career in paleontology as a 5-year-old when he visited
the American Museum of Natural History with his father, a court

"I dreamed of becoming a scientist, in general, and a paleontologist,
in particular, ever since the tyrannosaurus skeleton awed and scared
me," he once wrote. In an upbringing filled with fossils and the
Yankees, he attended P.S. 26 and Jamaica High School. He then studied
geology at Antioch College in Ohio.

In 1967 he received a doctorate in paleontology from Columbia
University and went on to teach at Harvard where he would spend the
rest of his career. But it was in graduate school that Dr. Gould and
a fellow graduate student, Dr. Niles Eldredge, now a paleontologist
at the American Museum of Natural History, began sowing the seeds for
the most famous of the still-roiling debates that he is credited with
helping to start.

When studying the fossil record, the two students could not find the
gradual, continuous change in fossil forms they were taught was the
stuff of evolution. Instead, they found sudden appearances of new
fossil forms (sudden, that is, on the achingly slow geological time
scale) followed by long periods in which these organisms changed

Evolutionary biologists had always ascribed such difficulties to the
famous incompleteness of the fossil record. Then in 1972, the two
proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which suggested that
both the sudden appearances and lack of change were, in fact, real.
According to the theory, there are long periods of time, sometimes
millions of years, during which species change little, if at all.
Intermittently, new species arise and there is rapid evolutionary
change on a geological time scale (still interminably slow on human
time scales) resulting in the sudden appearance of new forms in the
fossil record. (This creates punctuations of rapid change against a
backdrop of steady equilibrium, hence the name.)

Thirty years later, scientists are still arguing over how often the
fossil record shows a punctuated pattern and how such a pattern might
arise. Many credit punctuated equilibrium with helping to promote the
flowering of the field of macroevolution in which researchers study
large-scale evolutionary changes often in a geological time frame.

In 1977, Dr. Gould's book, "Ontogeny and Phylogeny," drew biologists'
attention to the long-ignored relationship between how organisms
develop  that is, how an adult gets built from the starting plans of
an egg  and how they evolve.

"Gould has given biologists a new way to see the organisms they
study," wrote Dr. Stan Rachootin, an evolutionary biologist at Mount
Holyoke College. Many credit the book with helping to inspire the new
field of evo-devo, or the study of evolution and development.

Dr. Gould and Dr. Richard Lewontin, also at Harvard, soon elaborated
on the importance of how organisms are built, or their architecture,
in a famous paper about a feature of buildings known as a spandrel.
Spandrels, the spaces in the corners above an arch, exist as a
necessary outcome of building with arches. In the same way, they
argued, some features of organisms exist simply as the result of how
an organism develops or is built. Thus researchers, they warned,
should refrain from assuming every feature exists for some adaptive

In March, Dr. Gould saw publication of "The Structure of Evolutionary
Theory" which he described as his magnum opus over which he toiled
for decades. The book lays out his vision for synthesizing Darwin's
original ideas and Dr. Gould's major contributions to
macroevolutionary theory.

"It is a heavyweight work," wrote Dr. Mark Ridley, evolutionary
biologist at University of Oxford in England. And despite sometimes
"almost pathological logorrhea" at 1,433 pages, "it is still a
magnificent summary of a quarter-century of influential thinking and
a major publishing event in evolutionary biology."

Dr. Gould was also dogged by vociferous, often high-profile critics.
Some of these scientists charged that his theories, like punctuated
equilibrium, were so malleable and difficult to pin down that they
were essentially untestable.

After once proclaiming that Dr. Gould had brought paleontology back
to the high table of evolutionary theory, Dr. John Maynard Smith, an
evolutionary biologist at University of Sussex in England, wrote that
other evolutionary biologists "tend to see him as a man whose ideas
are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with." Sometimes
these criticisms descend into so-called "Gould-bashing" where the
charges are as personal as intellectual. Punctuated equilibrium, for
example, has been called "evolution by jerks."

Some who study smaller-scale evolution within species, called
microevolutionists, reject his arguments that there are unique
features to large-scale, or macroevolution. Instead, they say that
macroevolution is nothing more than microevolution played out over
long periods. Dr. Gould also had heated battles with sociobiologists,
researchers employing a particular method of studying animal
behavior, and there are many there who reject his ideas as well.

Others criticized him for championing theories that challenge parts
of the modern Darwinian framework, an act some see as aiding and
abetting creationists. Yet Dr. Gould was a visible opponent of
efforts to get evolution out of the classroom.

Most people knew Dr. Gould as an entertaining esssayist. Credited
with saving the dying art form of the scientific essay, he often told
tales of scientific insight by pulling together unrelated ideas or
things. (He began one essay by conjoining Abraham Lincoln and Charles
Darwin  an unlikely couple  noting his discovery that they were
born on the same day.) A champion of the underdog (except in his
support of the Yankees), he favored theories and scientists that had
been forgotten or whose reputations were in disrepair.

Dr. Gould also popularized evolutionary ideas at Harvard, sometimes
finding his lecture halls filled to standing room only. But while his
tales of adventure typically took place in the library, colleagues
said that Dr. Gould, whose specialty was Cerion land snails in the
Bahamas, was also impressive in the field.

Noting that in graduate school Dr. Gould dodged bullets and drug
runners to collect specimens of this group comprised of both living
and fossil species, Dr. Sally Walker, who studies Cerion at
University of Georgia, once said, "That guy can drive down the left
side of the road," which is required in the Bahamas, "then jump out
the door and find Cerion when we can't even see it." Then, she
recalled, this multilingual, internationally respected Renaissance
man, student of classical music and astronomy, and countless other
eclectia, might joyously break out into Gilbert and Sullivan song.

Dr. Gould is survived by his wife, Ms. Roland Schearer, and his two
children by a first marriage, Jesse and Ethan.

Dr. Gould also had a battle with cancer in 1982, diagnosed with
abdominal mesothelioma. In an essay, he described his reaction to the
news: dragging himself to Harvard's medical library as soon as he
could walk. There he used his knowledge of statistics to read the
scientific literature and find the strength to fight a diagnosis
considered a death sentence.

"When my skein runs out I hope to face the end calmly and in my own
way," he wrote. However, "death is the ultimate enemy  and I find
nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of
the light." He survived the illness through experimental treatment,
though his death was erroneously reported at that time.

Dr. Gould received innumerable awards and honors, including a
Macarthur "genius" grant the first year they were awarded. He served
as president of the American Association for the Advancement of
Science, was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and won the
National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He
was the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard and the
Astor Visiting Research Professor of Biology at New York University.

Whether eloquently and forcefully championing new or forgotten ideas
or dismantling what he saw as misconceptions, Dr. Gould spent a
career trying to shed light on an impossibly wide variety of

He once wrote, "I love the wry motto of the Paleontological Society
(meant both literally and figuratively, for hammers are the main tool
of our trade): Frango ut patefaciam  I break in order to reveal."

Louis Proyect, [log in to unmask] on 05/20/2002

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