Stephen Jay Gould, a renowned palaeontologist, passed away at the age of 60 due to cancer, leaving behind a rich legacy. He was an unlikely candidate for consideration as one of America’s "Living Legends," yet he was awarded the honour by the US Congress during his lifetime. The Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) since 1982, he was best known for his 300 monthly essays published in the Natural History magazine, starting from 1974 till last year. These essays were widely translated into multiple languages and published in various books.
Gould was a gifted writer who wrote essays about seemingly complex topics in natural history and palaeontology, often using references and examples from everyday life to help people understand them better. One of his articles explained the peculiar evolutionary phenomenon of species decreasing in size by comparing it to the manufacturers of Hershey bars who avoided price increase by reducing the size of the bars. Gould’s literary skills and connection with his readers were unparalleled, and his only peers in scientific essay writing were Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Huxley and JBS Haldane in the early 20th century.
Beyond being an acclaimed writer, Gould was also a significant public figure who publicly engaged in demonstrations and picket lines, especially during the 1960s and 70s. He was a part of the Radical Science Movement (Science for the People) formed in response to the Vietnam War, which later became embroiled in the cultural battles surrounding the publication of EO Wilson’s book Sociobiology in 1975. Gould and his colleague Richard Lewontin, former MCZ professor, were on different floors of the same Harvard building, giving rise to conflicts with Wilson, who was sandwiched between them. Gould’s objections were not merely political but also revolved around an alternative viewpoint on the mechanisms of evolution.
Gould’s unique interpretation of Darwinian theory, known as Darwinian revisionism, was most famously articulated in his book, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. In it, he questioned one of Darwin’s crucial theses, namely gradual evolutionary change. He believed that the fossil record showed long periods of stasis followed by shorter, rapid evolutionary changes, which culminated in punctuated equilibrium. However, Gould faced opposition from traditional evolutionists who opposed his views.
Despite the controversies, Gould’s remarkable intellect and writing skills will continue to inspire generations of students in the fields of science and literature for many years to come.
An organism’s phenotype, or various physical features, may be either structural spandrels or exaptations, according to Gould and Vrba’s definition. An example of exaptation is feathers, originally used as a heat-regulating device among reptilian ancestors to birds but later repurposed by birds for flight. Some evolutionists initially regarded this concept as sacrilegious, as they believed that all characteristics of an organism were shaped by natural selection. However, Gould argues that evolution is not a "menu" where organisms can freely pick what features they want, but rather constrained by structure. While not all phenotypic traits are advantageous, such as spandrels and exaptations, evolution is still crucially governed by chance, with no indication of inherent progress towards complexity, perfection, or intelligent life.
Gould therefore proposes a hierarchical view of evolution, which includes genes, genomes, cell lineages, and, significantly, species. In contrast, much of contemporary biology has prioritized genetics to the point of neglecting the organism as a whole, reducing it to merely a tool for serving the purposes of its genes. Gould insists that the study of speciation is essential to comprehending evolution, and that the concept is foundational to all the disputes that have garnered him polarizing attention regarding evolutionary theory, pitting him against scientists such as Richard Dawkins. Despite this, both he and Dawkins remain children of Darwin, and find far more commonalities than differences in their evolutionary beliefs.
Gould’s intellectual odyssey from a radical critic to a senior academic did not follow the conventional trajectory. He rigorously defended his ideas in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, positing that even cutting-edge research is historically constrained by the twists and turns of theory and evidence that guide its development. His writing frequently returns to his palaeontological roots, and he sees the history of evolutionary biology as vital to understanding what we know about the field today.
Born and bred in Queens, New York, Gould pursued his academic training in geology and palaeontology in Antioch College, Ohio, and Columbian University. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1982, a cancer associated with asbestos exposure, and committed the next twenty years of his life to pursue his research and become an inspirational figure to cancer patients. Gould married twice, and is survived by his former and second wife Deborah and Rhonda, and their respective children.
Finally, Steve Jones remembered Gould as a leading light in the study of snail genetics. While his research on live or fossilised snails in the Bahamas is noteworthy, Gould became most renowned for his interpretation of these facts. Similarly, Darwin became an eminent figure for evolutionary studies due to his insights gathered from his voyages, making both scientists clear examples of ones who revolutionized their fields through their unique perspectives on empirical evidence.
Although it faced criticism from some, Stephen Jay Gould’s influential theory of punctuated equilibrium – also known as "evolution by jerks" to its detractors – served as a much-needed wake-up call for the sluggish field of post-Darwinian biology. It forced scientists to remember neglected areas of evolutionary theory and ignited heated debates. While many believed that Gould’s theory posed no threat to Darwin’s conventional ideas, Gould staunchly disagreed.
In the eyes of some of his peers, Gould was ultimately a scientific failure for his controversial views, but they couldn’t deny the impact his work had on the public. Despite occasional verbosity, he was known for his brilliant science essays and humorously took on creationists while remaining relatable by sharing his love of baseball. He remained dedicated to his work until his death, discussing topics such as snails in his final conversations.
In his lifetime, Gould was recognized for his contributions as a punctuationist, popularizer, and polemicist. However, in the scientific community, he also earned the rare and esteemed title of naturalist, a position held by his predecessor Darwin. Stephen Jay Gould, palaeontologist, was born on September 10, 1941, and passed away on May 20, 2002.