Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Remembering Stephen Jay Gould

Remembering Stephen Jay Gould
Reviewed by
Kevin Padian, NCSE President

Steve Gould wrote like no one else in our field — or in any other field. His sentences were long, erudite, and full of parenthetical phrases, allusions to classical literature, intellectual history, philosophy of science, art, music, historical personages, and baseball. His short pieces always had a moral, and usually it was about how important it is to see biology through the glass of evolution. His point was often that evolution uses what is available to form new structures and functions; it is not necessary to create structures de novo, to wait for new complexes of genes to arrive, or to pretend that such new features are impossible to evolve. In this way, he met the challenges of the adaptationists, the population geneticists, and the creationists at the same time. His lesson was that in the functional design of organisms, evolutionary history is as important as any other factor. Such a lesson could only come from a paleobiologist. But it had to be from a paleobiologist who understood history.

And Steve understood history very well, above all the history of evolutionary thought. He knew that we ourselves live in a moment of history that will later be interpreted for its intellectual values: the values that we place on previous history, how we interpret historical concepts and personages in the light of these values, how we reformulate and answer the eternal questions about evolution, form and function, process and pattern. This awareness of history is present in his earliest works, and is shown masterfully in his 1972 paper with Niles Eldredge on punctuated equilibria. Indeed, one of the first sections of that paper is entitled "The cloven footprint of theory". Even then, he tried to teach paleontologists and biologists that one cannot approach a set of data without any idea of what one expects to find.

Part of the rhetorical genius of punctuated equilibria was that it did not deny the central mechanisms of the Modern Synthesis of evolution that were assembled since the 1930s. On the contrary, Eldredge and Gould showed that the principal model of evolutionary change in populations was not a slow, gradual divergence and genetic differentiation around a geographic or ecological barrier. Rather, Ernst Mayr himself had championed the idea that it was around the edges of the total range of a species that evolutionary change could occur most quickly. This was a piece of rhetorical genius, in my view, because (for better or worse) it did not challenge the findings of other fields but rather strove to work with them. Of course, as we know, their hypothesis was not perceived in this way, but that is not their fault.

Steve was equally famous for putting into accessible words many concepts that had previously been poorly articulated or related to more general ideas. With Elisabeth Vrba he developed the concept of exaptation and other terms associated with the idea of how selection puts existing structures to new uses. With Richard Lewontin he criticized the "adaptationist program" that pervaded much Anglo-American functional and evolutionary biology — using again his favorite metaphors from ecclesiastical architecture. And his book Ontogeny and Phylogeny, published in 1977, provided the historical framework and the patterns of paleontological evidence that could bring together once more two sciences that had been separated for a century. His masterwork, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, a book on which he worked for 25 years, is the final chapter of his legacy, and it will be interesting to see how it is received.

In losing Steve, the community also loses a good friend. He was a jovial, expansive man, always glad to see a colleague, and he remembered and appreciated one's contributions. Through the years, we had many memorable discussions on all kinds of subjects. We shared a great interest in the history of evolutionary thought and how it affected the current of evolutionary research today. However, we could never come to discuss science, or even Darwin, Owen, and other historical personages, without first discussing a topic of even more important common interest: baseball. We shared this passion, and although I never got to accompany Steve to a game at Fenway or Yankee Stadium, I did have the pleasure of taking him to an Oakland A's game at the Coliseum. Steve was the only person I ever knew who referred to the New York Yankees as "we".

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.