Remeasuring Stephen Jay Gould

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by Matt Bruenig
May 22, 2017

The day after Stephen Jay Gould died, his obituary appeared on the front page of the New York Times, testifying to his position as the most famous scientist in the United States. His talent for synthesizing ideas and arguments, his work ethic, and — as he would have been the first to note — luck made him famous.

He had not planned to write his monthly column, “This View of Life,” for Natural History for twenty-five years, but, like his childhood hero Joe DiMaggio, Gould became known for this literary streak, which breathed new life into the half-forgotten art of the popular scientific essay, a tradition that dates back to Galileo.

Like Galileo, Gould did more than interpret science for laypeople. He was also a path-breaking evolutionary theorist and a canny political organizer for leftist causes.

Along with his colleague Niles Eldredge, Gould changed the way biologists view the fossil record. His concept of punctuated equilibrium argued that new species emerge relatively rapidly and then remain mostly stable for millions of years. To his more parochial colleagues’ chagrin, Gould partly credited the inspiration for “punc eq” to the fact that he had “learned his Marxism, literally at his daddy’s knee.”

Though he was redbaited for this comment, Gould and Eldredge were speaking as pluralists and historicists not dogmatists. “We make a simple plea for pluralism in guiding philosophies . . . for the basic recognition that such philosophies . . . constrain all our thought.”

Historical context also acts as a constraint on new ideas. Darwin acknowledged the influence of the classical political economy of Smith and Malthus on his theory of evolution. Gould noted that his leftist upbringing and participation in the revolution of the Civil Rights Movement enabled him to recognize the importance of “punc eq’s” patterns of sudden and discontinuous evolutionary change.

Gould also revitalized the study of evolutionary development with his influential historical survey of the subject, Ontogeny and Phylogeny, and made his mark on anthropology by insisting that human evolution looked more like a branching bush with multiple overlapping lineages than a ladder of predictable stages.

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