Stephen Jay Gould: Punctuationist comes to an untimely full-stop

We had lost one of these rare ministers and interpreters of Nature whose names mark epochs in the advance of natural knowledge… It is curious now to remember how largely, at first, the objectors predominated; but considering the usual fate of new views, it is still more curious to consider for how short a time the phase of vehement opposition lasted.

Thomas Henry Huxley
The Darwin Memorial, 1885

Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould

Science is desperately short of great popularisers. It also needs intelligent sceptics who are prepared to challenge accepted beliefs. In Stephen Jay Gould, it had both. The world of science is the worse for his loss.

As a populariser of science, Gould had few equals. His unbroken run of 300 monthly essays, which appeared between 1974 and 2001 in Natural History magazine, and which were reprinted in several best-selling books, were masterpieces in the genre. In his best essays, Gould would often start with some small, seemingly obscure detail, then lead the reader through various twists and turns until the chosen detail became an illustration of a far wider scientific generality. En route, he would destroy myths, restore scorned historical figures to their rightful places in the scientific pantheon, wax lyrical about baseball, and occasionally slip in favourite Gouldian words such as canonical, maximal, contingency, ontogeny and exaptation. On reaching the end of a Gould essay, you would often feel (as Thomas Henry Huxley did after reading On the Origin of Species) how stupid of me not to have thought of that! You rarely, if ever, came away from a Gould essay without feeling just that little bit cleverer than before.

As a sceptical challenger of generally accepted scientific beliefs, Gould also had few equals. He was an outspoken critic of strict adaptationism - the tendency to describe just about every biological feature you care to name as a Darwinian adaptation. Instead, Gould claimed, many such features were merely incidental by-products of other adaptations (or, to use the metaphorical term he devised for them, spandrels [PDF]). With Niles Eldredge, Gould also developed the theory of punctuated equilibria, which claimed that the gaps in the fossil record that so embarrassed Darwin are often real, that evolutionary change is not always constant and gradual, and that species tend to evolve in relatively brief periods of rapid change separated by longer periods of relative stasis.

Critics have tried to dismiss Gould's science as unremarkable, unoriginal, or just plain wrong. They have accused him of caricaturing their views, setting up a straw men which are easy to knock down. Many of these critics, it must be said, are not above caricaturing Gould's own views. Straw men or not, Gould did evolutionary science a great service by arguing convincingly that there does not have to be a one-size-fits-all solution to everything: life is far more wonderful than that.

Gould's death leaves a noticeable gap in the world of science. No doubt his detractors will claim that the gap is illusory, but as Gould himself so often pointed out, sometimes gaps really are gaps.

Stephen Jay Gould
Born: Queens, New York, 10th September, 1941
Died: Manhattan, New York, 20th May, 2002

This article was published on 20th May, 2002.

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