May 22, 2002

Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002)


By Mark Hartwig

Evolutionary biology has lost its most visible spokesman. On Monday, Stephen Jay Gould, eminent paleontologist and prolific science writer, died of cancer at his home in Manhattan. He was 60 years old.

A brilliant and prolific writer, Gould is the author of such works as The Mismeasure of Man, Wonderful Life, and his recently published magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. He also penned 300 consecutive monthly installments of his column, This View of Life, for Natural History magazine.

A vigorous defender of naturalistic evolution, he nonetheless supplied its critics with some of the most damaging evidence against it-much to the annoyance of the Darwinist establishment. His penchant for contradictory and disingenuous statements, however, exasperated friend and foe alike.

On the one hand, he could fire off a statement saying that neo-Darwinism, "as a general proposition, is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy."1 But then he could turn around and declare, "Darwinian selection will not be overthrown; it will remain a central focus of more inclusive evolutionary theories."2

Gould also insisted that evolution was a strictly naturalistic-indeed, accidental-affair: "No intervening spirit watches lovingly over the affairs of nature (though Newton's clock-winding god might have set up the machinery at the beginning of time and then let it run). No vital forces propel evolutionary change. And whatever we think of God, his existence is not manifest in the products of nature."

He famously asserted in Wonderful Life that if the history of life were replayed, human beings would be unlikely to reappear.

Yet he seemed reluctant to accept the implications of those views in the arena of human affairs. He was long a vigorous critic of the biological determinism found in the works of such theorists as E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and contemporary evolutionary psychologists.

Such inconsistencies have variously been attributed to confused thinking, politics and a failure of nerve. But they also said something good about the man. Gould sincerely believed in the freedom and dignity of his fellow humans beings. His world view would not allow such "subjective" beliefs to trump his conviction that evolution is true. But neither did he let that conviction overthrow what he knew deep in his heart to be true-not on that score, anyway.

In this respect he was a better man than his theories. And that streak of humanity will be missed for a long time to come.


1. Stephen Jay Gould, "Is a new and general theory of evolution emerging?" Paleobiology 6 (1980): 119-130.
2. Stephen Jay Gould, "Darwinism defined: the difference between fact and theory," Discover 8 (January 1987): 64.

Copyright 2002 Mark Hartwig. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 5.22.02