Pure Gould

Submitted by martin on 4 June, 2002 - 10:49

Clive Bradley looks at the work of Stephen Jay Gould, who died in May 2002.

Stephen Jay Gould, who has died aged sixty, after a twenty year battle with lung cancer, was one of the world's best known, and often most controversial, writers of popular science. Professor of Zoology and Geology at Harvard University, Gould introduced thousands of non-scientists like me to Darwinism, with books like Ever Since Darwin and An Urchin in the Storm - collections of essays originally written for Natural History magazine. A palaeontologist (an expert in snails), he was himself a chief figure within Darwinist debates. He was one of the authors of the theory of 'punctuated equilibria' - that evolution goes through (relatively speaking) rapid periods of change after long eras of 'stasis', rather than just bit-by-bit gradualism. But his work covers an astonishing range of subjects. One of his best books, The Mismeasure of Man, was not about evolutionary theory at all, but an impassioned criticism of the whole racist history of intelligence testing.
A recent book contains a chapter which sums up what made Gould stand out among science writers. Rocks of Ages is an attempt to define the separate areas of science and religion. In the course of it, he discusses the famous Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, in which a young teacher was prosecuted for teaching Darwin. It has been ever since, of course, a cause celebre in the battles in America between Darwinists and 'creationists', and Gould himself was a prominent witness in a more recent court battle to keep Darwin in schools.

The chief enemy of Darwinism in 1925 was the populist politician William Jennings Bryan. As you might expect, Bryan was a bible-thumper. But he had previously fought for radical causes - for women's, workers' and farmers' rights, and against militarism and war. Normally his last battle against scientific truth is portrayed as a bewildering deviation from a life otherwise in the service of progress. Gould asks if this image is quite right. And he discovers this, for example, in the textbook which was used to teach evolution in Dayton: "At the present time there exist... five races... of man... [T]he highest of all [is] the civilised white inhabitants of Europe and America." (Rocks of Ages, p168). This is what made Bryan an opponent of what he thought was Darwinism.

Two things here are pure Gould. First, there is a concern to understand the social context of the opponents of science. But there is also an abiding passion to understand the social and political context of science itself. Bryan was wrong about Darwin. But he was not wrong to be alarmed by the use to which Darwin was then being put to justify, ideologically, racism and class oppression. This is a lesson Gould was keen we should not forget.

Gould made several important contributions to evolutionary theory, usually working with others. He was author of the theory of punctuated equilibria with fellow palaeontologist Niles Eldredge. In 1972, with geneticist Richard Lewontin, he put forward the idea of 'spandrels' in evolution, a term taken from the architecture of a Venetian basilica. In such renaissance churches there are bits of the building which look like a vital part of the design; in fact they are merely the consequence of something else. So too, in evolution, it is wrong to ask in every case how natural selection might have caused a particular development (what Gould referred to dismissively as the 'adaptationist programme'): some things, so to speak, 'just happen'. Elsewhere he developed the related idea of 'exaptation' - that something might evolve for one purpose, but then accidentally acquire a different use. Not everything can be understood by telling 'just so stories' about its evolutionary history.

One of his theoretical preoccupations was this issue of chance, 'contingency', spelled out in detail in his marvellous book Wonderful Life, about the Cambrian explosion of multicellular life 600 million years ago. Evolution has no 'direction' or 'aim'. But Gould argued this idea more forcefully and uncompromisingly than most. For Gould, not only are human beings not some pinnacle of evolution, but the very notion that evolution tends towards more complex or intelligent organisms, human or otherwise, is false. Most organisms alive - the vast majority in number and total weight - are bacteria. Increasing complexity is a statistical illusion.

Gould was often a controversial figure. His opponents considered him woolly-minded, too political, and a self-publicist. I imagine the sheer range of his knowledge, and his commercial success, were often rather galling to academic rivals. His concern to draw political lessons, to drag science from ivory towers and show its social relevance probably did, sometimes, lead to exaggerations and misunderstanding.

But there are few professors of palaeontology who would bother to write a critique of intelligence testing. The second edition of The Mismeasure of Man contains a review of The Bell Curve, that notorious book which claims black Americans are more stupid than white. Gould demolishes the very fabric of the argument - simply, and in a few pages, takes it apart. He does so partly in the name of science, and as an expert in statistics. But he does so also, of course, in the name of humanity and justice. This is science writing at its absolute best - engaging with the world as well as explaining it.

The child of Jewish members of the American Communist Party, he once famously commented that he "learned his Marxism on his father's knee". He tended to hedge when asked if he was a Marxist, but a background in Marxist theory is obvious in his writing.

For my money, in broad terms, Stephen Jay Gould was one of us. Much of his work should be on every socialist's bookshelf. I have learned an enormous amount from him. For me and many other fans of popular science writing, his all-too early death is a genuine loss.

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