The Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard, Gould also taught geology and the history of science. He was a prolific writer and producer of scientific ideas, many that challenged theories about the mechanisms by which life has evolved and continues to evolve.
"When the history of our discipline is written, he will be seen as a major juncture point. That's true whether you agree or disagree with him," says Warren Allmon, a paleontologist at Cornell University, director of the Paleontological Research Institution, and one of Gould's graduate students during the 1980s.
Thirty years ago, Gould and colleague Niles Eldredge, now a curator in the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, publicized the theory of punctuated equilibrium: that evolutionary changes happen in dramatic spurts separated by long periods of stasis. "Thirty years ago, we didn't believe in catastrophes, we didn't believe in sudden evolutionary change. We thought everything was slow and gradual. We don't think that way anymore," Allmon says. "What we teach students now we never would have taught them 30 years ago. … He was part of the nexus of all that."
From 1974 to 2001, Gould wrote a monthly column in Natural History magazine. These columns and many of his books were written for and reached a broad audience. “To me the greatest loss is of someone who could communicate with the general public so clearly about science,” says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, an organization that works to support the teaching of evolution in U.S. schools.
Gould was born on Sept. 10, 1941, in the borough of Queens in New York City. He earned his bachelor’s degree in geology in 1963 from Antioch College in Ohio. After he earned his doctorate in paleontology from Columbia University in 1967, he joined the faculty at Harvard where he remained for the rest of his career. He was also curator of invertebrate paleontology at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology.
He received more than 40 honorary degrees and many scientific and literary awards. He also served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Paleontological Society.
Some of his award-winning books were The Panda’s Thumb, which earned the National Book Award in 1981; The Mismeasure of Man, recognized with the National Book Critics Award in 1982; and Wonderful Life, which won the Rhone-Poulenc Prize in 1991.
“He had a phenomenal knowledge,” says Stephen Stanley, a paleontologist at Johns Hopkins University, president of the American Geological Institute, and one of Gould’s contemporaries in developing theories about evolution. “That’s why his writing entertained people. He was a very impressive writer and speaker. With his knowledge and his ability with the language, he had an enormous influence. … I think he popularized paleontology for the literate public. He made the reading public more aware of evolution and paleontology, and performed a service.”
Stephen Jay Gould
Patricia H. Kelley
“Go study at Harvard with the ‘boy genius’!” my college adviser told me as I was applying to paleontology graduate programs. That was in 1974, when at age 33 Stephen Jay Gould was already a full professor, having joined the Harvard geology faculty at age 26, and when his most famous offspring, the theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” was a mere toddler.
Steve taught his students always to question established ideas. He taught us to look for anomalies. He taught us that “things are seldom what they seem” (a Gilbert & Sullivan line that he used as a title of a paper on the origin of evolutionary trends). He taught us to make connections between disparate fields, for who knows when major-league batting averages, architectural details, words of scripture, or cartoon characters might shed light on some important question about the history of life. He taught us to love words, and he invented new ones for us to learn.
Steve taught his colleagues in paleontology and evolutionary biology new ways of looking at the fossil record, the history of life and the evolutionary process. He and colleague Niles Eldredge proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium in 1972, and taught us that Darwinian gradualism might not be the proper paradigm for evolution. Much of life (how much is still hotly debated) has evolved by punctuated equilibrium, in which most evolution is concentrated in geologically rapid bursts of species formation. He taught us that adaptation by Darwinian natural selection is not the only process in evolution. He taught us that large-scale evolutionary trends might not accumulate from short-term directional change. He taught us about the power of contingency in evolution. He taught us that evolution may occur at different “tiers” above the level of the individual. He challenged us, he annoyed us, he enraged us, he galvanized us, he converted us. We didn’t always agree with him, but we always listened to him.
Steve taught the public to love science. Through 27 years of essays in the magazine Natural History, and with books such as Wonderful Life, he instilled an appreciation of paleontology and evolution in his avid followers. Mickey Mouse, .400 hitters, Hershey bars, even his 1982 bout with cancer, all became vehicles for making complex topics in paleontology and evolutionary biology understandable to the public. And his efforts were tireless to support the teaching of evolution in public schools and to clarify the relationship between science and religion.
Steve visited me at the University of North Dakota seven years ago, where he gave a talk at my annual department banquet. He didn’t want to tour the university; he didn’t want to socialize with faculty and administrators. He said, “You know what interests me. Show me around.” So we drove around the prairie, talking about the role of extinction in evolution (my current research topic and an abiding interest of Steve’s). We admired the 1880s church at Inkster, where my husband was minister, and Steve played the organ and I sang hymns. We got the bank president in Forest River to unlock the bank and show us the art deco interior. Mary Lou cooked us breakfast at the Gilby Café. And I knew that Steve was mentally recording every detail, to be used to clarify some evolutionary phenomenon in a future essay or article.
In October, Stephen Jay Gould will receive posthumously the Paleontological Society’s highest honor, the PS Medal. Normally this award is given to a retired paleontologist in recognition of a lifetime of achievement. No one had nominated Steve, because no one realized how close he was to the end of his lifetime. We had assumed that he would continue to challenge our thinking and mold our science for years to come. But the Paleontological Society Council learned of his illness a few days before our spring meeting and immediately recognized the appropriateness of honoring Steve with this award. When I spoke to him a few days later, Steve expressed delight that his colleagues wished to honor him in this way. Stephen Jay Gould will be honored 15 years after serving as the Society’s president, and 27 years after receiving the PS Schuchert Award, given to “a person whose work early in his or her career reflects excellence and quality.”
The “boy genius” is gone, a victim of cancer at
age 60. But his genius will remain, inspiring future generations of students,
scientists and all those interested in the history of life to look for
anomalies and question dogma as we examine the wonderful life around us.