Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941 – May 20, 2002) was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation. Gould spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In the later years of his life, Gould also taught biology and evolution at New York University.

Gould’s most significant contribution to evolutionary biology was the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which he developed with Niles Eldredge in 1972.  The theory proposes that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability, which is punctuated by rare instances of branching evolution. The theory was contrasted against phyletic gradualism, the popular idea that evolutionary change is marked by a pattern of smooth and continuous change in the fossil record.

Most of Gould’s empirical research was based on the land snail genera Poecilozonites and Cerion. He also contributed to evolutionary developmental biology, and has received wide praise for his book Ontogeny and Phylogeny. In evolutionary theory he opposed strict selectionism, sociobiology as applied to humans, and evolutionary psychology. He campaigned against creationism and proposed that science and religion should be considered two distinct fields (or “magisteria”) whose authorities do not overlap.

Gould was known by the general public mainly from his 300 popular essays in the magazine Natural History, and his books written for a non-specialist audience. In April 2000, the US Library of Congress named him a “Living Legend”.

Stephen Jay Gould was born and raised in the community of Bayside, a neighborhood of the northeastern section of Queens in New York City. His father, Leonard, was a court stenographer, and his mother, Eleanor, was an artist whose parents were Jewish immigrants living and working in the city’s Garment District. When Gould was five years old, his father took him to the Hall of Dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History, where he first encountered Tyrannosaurus rex. “I had no idea there were such things—I was awestruck,” Gould once recalled. It was in that moment that he decided to become a paleontologist.

Raised in a secular Jewish home, Gould did not formally practice religion and preferred to be called an agnostic.  Though he “had been brought up by a Marxist father”, he stated that his father’s politics were “very different” from his own.  In describing his own political views, he has said they “tend to the left of center”. According to Gould the most influential political books he read were C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite and the political writings of Noam Chomsky.

While attending Antioch College in the early 1960s, Gould was active in the civil rights movement and often campaigned for social justice. When he attended the University of Leeds as a visiting undergraduate, he organized weekly demonstrations outside a Bradford dance hall which refused to admit Blacks. Gould continued these demonstrations until the policy was revoked.  Throughout his career and writings, he spoke out against cultural oppression in all its forms, especially what he saw as the pseudoscience used in the service of racism and sexism.  (…)

Marriage and family (…)
First bout with cancer (…)
Final illness and death (…)

Scientific Career
Gould began his higher education at Antioch College, graduating with a double major in geology and philosophy in 1963. During this time, he also studied at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. After completing graduate work at Columbia University in 1967 under the guidance of Norman Newell, he was immediately hired by Harvard University where he worked until the end of his life (1967–2002). In 1973, Harvard promoted him to Professor of Geology and Curator of Invertebrate paleontology at the institution’s Museum of Comparative Zoology; he very often described himself as a taxonomist.

In 1982 Harvard awarded him the title of Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology. The following year, 1983, he was awarded fellowship of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where he later served as president (1999–2001). The AAAS news release cited his “numerous contributions to both scientific progress and the public understanding of science”. He also served as president of the Paleontological Society (1985–1986) and of the Society for the Study of Evolution (1990–1991).

In 1989 Gould was elected into the body of the National Academy of Sciences. Through 1996–2002 Gould was Vincent Astor Visiting Research Professor of Biology at New York University. In 2001, the American Humanist Association named him the Humanist of the Year for his lifetime of work. In 2008, he was posthumously awarded the Darwin-Wallace Medal, along with 12 other recipients. (Until 2008 this medal had been awarded every 50 years by the Linnean Society of London.
Punctuated Equilibrium  (…)
Evolutionary developmental biology (…)
Selectionism and biology (…)

Against “Sociobiology”
In 1975, Gould’s Harvard colleague E. O. Wilson introduced his analysis of animal behavior (including human behavior) based on a sociobiological framework that suggested that many social behaviors have a strong evolutionary basis. In response, Gould, Richard Lewontin, and others from the Boston area wrote the subsequently well-referenced letter to The New York Review of Books entitled, “Against ‘Sociobiology’”. This open letter criticized Wilson’s notion of a “deterministic view of human society and human action”. (…)
Spaindreds and Panglossian Paradigm (…)

Evolutionary progress
Gould favored the argument that evolution has no inherent drive towards long-term “progress”. Uncritical commentaries often portray evolution as a ladder of progress, leading towards bigger, faster, and smarter organisms, the assumption being that evolution is somehow driving organisms to get more complex and ultimately more like humankind. Gould argued that evolution’s drive was not towards complexity, but towards diversification. Because life is constrained to begin with a simple starting point ( like bacteria), any diversity resulting from this start, by random walk, will have a skewed distribution and therefore be perceived to move in the direction of higher complexity. But life, Gould argued, can also easily adapt towards simplification, as is often the case with parasites (…)

Cladistics (…)
Technical work on land snails (…)

Gould is one of the most frequently cited scientists in the field of evolutionary theory. His 1979 “spandrels” paper has been cited more than 4,000 times. In Paleobiology—the flagship journal of his own speciality—only Charles Darwin and George Gaylord Simpson have been cited more often. Gould was also a considerably respected historian of science. Historian Ronald Numbers has been quoted as saying: “I can’t say much about Gould’s strengths as a scientist, but for a long time I’ve regarded him as the second most influential historian of science (next to Thomas Kuhn).”

The structure of Evolutionary Theory
Shortly before his death, Gould published a long treatise recapitulating his version of modern evolutionary theory: The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002).

As a public figure
Gould became widely known through his popular essays on evolution in the Natural History magazine. His essays were published in a series titled This View of Life (a phrase from the concluding paragraph of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species) starting from January 1974 and ended in January 2001, amounting to a continuous publication of 300 essays. Many of his essays were reprinted in collected volumes that became bestselling books such as Ever Since Darwin and The Panda’s Thumb, Hens’ Teeth and Horses’ Toes, and The Flamingo’s Smile.

A passionate advocate of evolutionary theory, Gould wrote prolifically on the subject, trying to communicate his understanding of contemporary evolutionary biology to a wide audience. A recurring theme in his writings is the history and development of pre-evolutionary and evolutionary thought. He was also an enthusiastic baseball fan and sabermetrician, and made frequent reference to the sport in his essays. Many of his baseball essays were anthologized in his posthumously published book Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville (2003).

Although a proud Darwinist, Gould’s emphasis was less gradualist and reductionist than most neo-Darwinists. He fiercely opposed many aspects of sociobiology and its intellectual descendant evolutionary psychology. He devoted considerable time to fighting against creationism, creation science, and intelligent design. Most notably, Gould provided expert testimony against the equal-time creationism law in McLean v. Arkansas. Gould later developed the term “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) to describe how, in his view, science and religion could not comment on each other’s realm. Gould went on to develop this idea in some detail, particularly in the books Rocks of Ages (1999) and The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox (2003).  (…)

Controversy  (…)
Cambrian fauna  (…)
Opposition to sociobiology and evolutionary psychology (…)

The Mismeasure of Man
Gould was the author of The Mismeasure of Man (1981), a history and inquiry of psychometrics and intelligence testing. Gould investigated the methods of nineteenth century craniometry, as well as the history of psychological testing. Gould claimed that both theories developed from an unfounded belief in biological determinism, the view that “social and economic differences between human groups—primarily races, classes, and sexes—arise from inherited, inborn distinctions and that society, in this sense, is an accurate reflection of biology.”

It was reprinted in 1996 with the addition of a new foreword and a critical review of The Bell Curve. The Mismeasure of Man has generated perhaps the greatest controversy of all of Gould’s books. It has received both widespread praise and extensive criticism, including claims of misrepresentation (…)

Non – overlapping magisteria
In his book Rocks of Ages (1999), Gould put forward what he described as “a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution to…the supposed conflict between science and religion.” He defines the term magisterium as “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution.” The non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) principle therefore divides the magisterium of science to cover “the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry.” He suggests that “NOMA enjoys strong and fully explicit support, even from the primary cultural stereotypes of hard-line traditionalism” and that NOMA is “a sound position of general consensus, established by long struggle among people of goodwill in both magisterial (…)

For further lecture, notes, bibliography and external links see Wikipedia
(deletions for the purpose of this Anthology by editor, further biographies in the Encyclopedia of World Biography, the SJG Archive Biography, and the Academy of Achievement)

Source: Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, partially shortened by editor,

© Prof. Jens Drolshammer,,

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