Obituary Stephen Jay Gould Essay Research Paper

Obituary: Stephen Jay Gould Essay, Research Paper

Stephen Jay GouldProfesor Stephen Jay Gould, who has died of malignant neoplastic disease aged 60, was an improbable figure to hold been canonised in his life-time by the US Congress, which named him as one of America & # 8217 ; s & # 8220 ; populating legends & # 8221 ; . A paleontologist, he was based for most of his life at the museum of comparative fauna ( MCZ ) at Harvard, where, since 1982, he had been Alexander Agassiz professor of fauna. But he was best known to the populace through his unbroken sequence of 300 monthly essays in Natural History magazine, which began in 1974 and ended merely last twelvemonth ; they were republished in a apparently ageless watercourse of books, translated into tonss of linguistic communications and bought by their 100s of 1000s. A fashionable author, Gould characterised each essay by deducing a apparently deep point in natural history or paleontology via a crabwise expression at a novel, a edifice, or, frequently, a mention to his womb-to-tomb enthusiasm for baseball. He one time illuminated the curious evolutionary phenomenon in which more late evolved species within a household group steadily decrease in size by comparing it to how the makers of Hershey bars avoided monetary value rises by doing the bars smaller while maintaining the costs the same. As a scientific litterateur, Gould & # 8217 ; s merely equals were & # 8220 ; Darwin & # 8217 ; s bulldog & # 8221 ; , Thomas Huxley, in the nineteenth century and JBS Haldane in the 1930s and 40s. The comparing with Haldane is disposed in two farther ways ; both made cardinal parts to evolutionary theory, and both were politically engaged both within scientific discipline and in the broader political sphere. Gould & # 8217 ; s review of the pseudoscience of claims refering the heritage of intelligence, developed in one of his best-known books, The Mismeasure Of Man ( 1981 ) , became a major beginning for anti-racist candidates. But Gould was no mere word-spinner ; as a major public rational and powerful public talker, he could be seen at presentations and on lookout lines, particularly during the sixtiess and 70s. This was the birth of what became known as the extremist scientific discipline motion ( Science for the People ) , ab initio in response to the Vietnam war. The motion, and Gould along with it, subsequently became embroiled in the cultural battles that raged around the publication, in 1975, of EO Wilson & # 8217 ; s Sociobiology, the precursor to today & # 8217 ; s evolutionary psychological science, and seen by many as offering a scientific proof for societal inequalities in category, gender and race. Some saw this as a specifically Harvard-based conflict, as Gould occupied the MCZ cellar and his co-worker, and sometimes co-author, Richard Lewontin, the first floor & # 8211 ; with Wilson sandwiched between them on the land floor. Wilson became clearly uneasy when come ining the lift in instance he might hold to face Gould, Lewontin or any of their pupil protagonists. However, for Gould the issues were ne’er merely about political relations, but besides about a different position of the mechanisms and procedures of development, a position that reached its clearest look in his last and greatest book, The Structure Of Evolutionary Theory & # 8211 ; at more than 1,400 pages, the greatest in every sense & # 8211 ; which was published merely last month. This is the most comprehensive statement of Gould & # 8217 ; s Darwinian revisionism, a revisionism that began in alumnus school when he and fellow pupil Niles Eldredge developed their review of one of Darwin & # 8217 ; s cardinal theses, that of gradual evolutionary alteration. To the concern of his many friends and protagonists, who had argued that speciation was likely to happen by disconnected passages, Darwin had insisted that & # 8220 ; nature does non do springs & # 8221 ; . Gould and Eldredge re-addressed this inquiry, indicating out that the dodo record was one of 1000000s of old ages of stasis, punctuated by comparatively brief periods of rapid alteration & # 8211 ; hence punctuated equilibrium. To Gould & # 8217 ; s rage, as a loyal kid of Darwin, the theory was misappropriated by creationists, whom he attacked with characteristic energy. However, in one of his most recent books, Rocks Of Ages ( 1999 ) , he attempted to come to footings with a faith more reconciled to science, change by reversaling the proposition of rendering unto Caesar by leting faith its independent sphere. But punctuated equilibrium made many traditional evolutionists unhappy excessively ; they saw it as grounds of Gould & # 8217 ; s alleged Marxism & # 8211 ; revolution instead than development. Orthodox biologists besides tended to resent the carefreeness with which Gould upstaged them. Lecturing at the Royal Society, in London in the 1970s, he treated the assembled grandees to an history of the architecture of the San Marco cathedral, in Venice, in order to do the point that many apparently adaptative characteristics of an being are, in fact, the by-products of more cardinal structural restraints. The mosaic-filled infinites ( spandrils ) between the arches on which the dome stands may look as if they were planned, but they are simply space-fillers, albeit 1s put to artistic and spiritual usage. Many characteristics of an being ( its phenotype ) may besides be structural spandrils, others may be & # 8220 ; exaptations & # 8221 ; & # 8211 ; another term coined by Gould, with Elizabeth Vrba, to depict characteristics originating in one context but later put to a different usage. Feathers, originally evolved as a heat regulative device among the reptilian ascendants of today & # 8217 ; s birds, are a good illustration. But to evolutionists, who believed every characteristic of an being was honed by what Darwin called & # 8220 ; nature & # 8217 ; s uninterrupted examination & # 8221 ; , this claim, and the manner in which it was delivered, was dissident. The rational & # 8217 ; s development from extremist immature Turk to maturate senior academic is traditionally that from iconoclasm to conventional wisdom

. Not so Steve Gould. The Structure Of Evolutionary Theory is a robust and formidable defence of his key contributions to Darwinian revisionism. Evolution is not a la carte, but structurally constrained; not all phenotypic features are adaptive, but may instead be spandrels or exaptations – or even contingent accidents, like the asteroid collision believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs, thus making space for mammals and ultimately humans. Wind the tape of history back, Gould insists, allow it to free-run forward again, and it is, in the highest degree, unlikely that the same species will evolve. Chance is crucial, and there is nothing inherently progressive about evolution – no drive to perfection, complexity or intelligent life. Above all, he argues, natural selection works at many levels. Because genetics has come to dominate much of the life sciences, for many biologists organisms have become almost irrelevant, save as instruments serving the purposes of their genes – splendidly encapsulated in Richard Dawkins’ famous description of humans as “lumbering robots” – the gene’s way of making copies of itself. Evolution itself has come to be defined as a change in gene frequency in a population. By contrast, Gould argues for a hierarchical view; that evolution works on genes, genomes, cell lineages and, especially, on species. Ignoring speciation, he says, is like playing Hamlet without the prince. This is the central theoretical issue underlying all the polemics that characterise what have come to be known as the “Darwin wars”, pitting Gould against Dawkins as his principal adversary, although in reality – and to the chagrin of creationists – both are children of Darwin, and agree on far more than they disagree. Cutting-edge researchers are often ignorant of their own science’s history. Perhaps it was because he was a palaeontologist that Gould returned so often in his writing to the history of his own subject. His was not the sort of whiggish, anecdotal approach by which senior scientists tend to ossify the progression from past obscurity to present clarity, but a deeper attempt to understand the twists and turns of theory and evidence, which ensure that even our present-day knowledge is provisional, and like life itself, historically constrained. Born in Queens, New York, and educated through the city’s superb public school system, Gould trained as a geologist at Antioch College, Ohio, took a doctorate in palaeontology at Columbia University, New York, in 1967, and spent a brief period at Leeds University before moving to Harvard. In 1982, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, rumoured to have been precipitated by the asbestos lining of the specimen cabinets in the MCZ basement. The disease has a median survival time of eight months; as Gould later wrote, he was committed to being one of those who survived long enough to help show that statistic medians are not means, after all. The 20 years before cancer finally caught up with him were packed with more than most public intellectuals and scientists can hope to achieve in a lifetime, and a small galaxy of prizes. He was married twice, and is survived by his former wife Deborah, their sons Jesse and Ethan, his second wife Rhonda, and his stepchildren, Jade and London. Steve Jones writes: The world of snail genetics has lost its leading light. Not, perhaps, how most obituarists will celebrate him, but true nevertheless. Gould was, like Darwin, a working scientist; an accumulator of facts, in his case about the snails, live or fossilised, of the Bahamas. However, and again like Darwin, he became most celebrated not for his own research, but for his interpretation of the facts gathered by others. Evolutionists have the bitter feeling that theirs is the only science left in which it is possible to become famous just for having an opinion. Their field (or at least the public’s image of it) is filled with people with strongly-held views who have never done an honest day’s work in their lives, whether in a rainforest or a laboratory. Gould was not like that. He may not have spent five years on the Beagle, but he passed many uncomfortable summers kicking through bushes or scraping away at lumps of rock. Whatever its merits, his famous theory of punctuated equilibrium – evolution by jerks, as its critics called it; Gould responded with taunts about evolution by creeps – gave the then slothful post-Darwinian giant a kick, just when and where it needed it. Biology was forced to remind itself that many evolutionary questions had been forgotten, and entered an era of intense debate. In the view of most (but not all) in the field, the answer was refreshingly conventional: Darwin was, in the end, right, and the problems raised by Gould could be solved without toppling the great Victorian from his ped- estal. Gould, needless to say, did not agree. Scientifically, he was – in the eyes of us “creeps” at least – a failure, but a heroic one, in the sense that Columbus failed to find India. In science, failures can be heroes, too – think of Newton after relativity; and to the public, Gould was the hero. He fought the creationists, joked about baseball, and wrote some of the finest of all science essays. Although sometimes visited by the curse of orotundity, he kept it up to the end. The last time I met him, we talked snails, and now that the chance to do so again has gone, it is time to summarise his life. To most people, he was punctuationist, populariser or polemicist; to biologists, he earned that most rare and coveted title, that of his great predecessor, Darwin: naturalist. · Stephen Jay Gould, palaeontologist, born September 10 1941; died May 20 2002