By Michael Shermer
The Skeptics Society
e-Skeptic for May 20th 2002.
By now almost everyone has heard about the death of Stephen Jay Gould. My phone has been ringing all day so tonight is the first moment I've had to sit and think about the meaning of Gould's life and death. I won't bother here with the basic details of his life, which can be found at www.nytimes.com/2002/05/21/obituaries/21GOUL.html
Instead I'll provide some general commentary along with a few excerpts from a forthcoming paper I have written analyzing Gould's work.
Steve told me about this latest bout with cancer back in March, and I was amazed at his stamina and strength when, after having brain surgery on Monday, May 1, I spoke with him at his home in Cambridge four days later. He had just finished giving a lecture at Harvard! This cancer was a totally different type than the one he had back in the early 1980s. He was symptom free and went in for a routine check-up in February when they discovered a couple of masses in his lungs. Further investigation revealed that he also had tumors in his brain, and "something going on with the liver," he said. As he characteristically told me back then, "we're still in the data-collection stage, no conclusions yet." Spoken like a true scientist.
Steve seemed hopeful the past couple of months, but I could hear in his mother's voice the past few weeks that the end was coming soon. We can only rejoice in the fact that he lived long enough to see his magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, published and widely reviewed. Still, his death was something of a shocker because I just spoke with his family on Saturday morning, and they were bringing him home that afternoon to spend the rest of his days there. I got the impression that there were weeks to go. As Gould himself might have said, life is so very fragile and contingent.
Gould was so famous that when asked to do something that he could not, he would send out the following form letter, which I myself received in 1988 before I knew him very well. (He later became a friend and huge supporter of Skeptic magazine, and he wrote a brilliant essay as a foreword for my book Why People Believe Weird Things.) The rejection note is written in vintage Gouldian style:
"I can only beg your indulgence and ask you to understand an asymmetry that operates cruelly (since it produces tension and incomprehension) but that leads to an ineluctable (however regrettable) result. The asymmetry: you want an hour or two, perhaps a day, of my timenot much compared to what you think I might provide (exaggerated, I suspect, but I won't struggle to disillusion you). From that point of view, I should complynot to do so could only be callousness or unkindness on my part. But now try to understand my side of the asymmetry: I receive on average (I promise that I am not exaggerating) two invitations to travel and lecture per day, about 25 unsolicited manuscripts per month asking for comments, 20 or so requests for letters of recommendation per month, about 15 books with requests for jacket blurbs. I am one frail human being with heavy family responsibilities, in uncertain health and with a burning desire (never diminished) to write and research my own material. Thus, I simply cannot do what you ask. I can only beg your understanding and extend to you my sincere thanks for thinking of me."
I wrote a chapter on Punctuated Equilibrium ("The Paradox of the Paradigms") in The Borderlands of Science, and one on Gould's emphasis on contingency in evolution ("Glorious Contingency") in How We Believe. There is an interview with Gould in Skeptic, Vol. 4, #1. I thought I would share with you an excerpt from a paper I have written on Gould's work, soon to be published in Social Studies of Science, entitled "This View of Science: Stephen Jay Gould as Historian of Science and Scientific Historian." It is an attempt to tease out deeper meaning on Gould's work through a quantitative content analysis of his writings. The original material for this was compiled for the Festschrift we held for Gould at Caltech last year. This is the section on his 300 consecutive essay streak in Natural History magazine (figures not included). Enjoy.
And adieu Steve. We'll miss you.
Stephen Jay Gould has often stated that his two heroes (other than his father) are Joe DiMaggio and Charles Darwin. Darwin, of course, makes regular appearances in most of Gould's publications, but DiMaggio crops up now and again as well. For a 1984 PBS NOVA special on Gould, he and his son spent an afternoon playing catch with DiMaggio on a ballpark in the Praesidio of San Francisco during which they discussed, of course, Gould's favorite topic of evolutionary trends in life, as well as baseball, including the Yankee Clipper's 56-game hitting streak. A few years later Gould wrote about this "Streak of Streaks," in which he demonstrated through a fairly sophisticated statistical analysis why DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak was so beyond the expectation of a player even as talented as DiMaggio that it should never have happened at all. It was inevitable, then, that Gould's own streak in science writing would be compared favorably to that of Jolt'n Joe's.
Gould's Natural History column began in January, 1974 with an 1880-word essay on "Size and Shape," and ended (appropriately considering Gould's interest in calendrics and the calculation of the millennium), in the December/January, 2000/2001 issue with a 4,750-word essay entitled "I Have Landed." In 27 years Gould wrote approximately 1.25 million words in 300 essays. The shortest essay was "Darwin's Dilemma" in 1974 at 1,475 words, and the longest (not counting four two-parters, the longest of which was 10,449 words) was "The Piltdown Conspiracy," in 1980 at 9,290 words, for an overall average of 4,166 words. Tracking the length of the essays over time shows that Gould reached his career average by the early 1980s and found his natural length of about 5,000 words by the early 1990s. The late 1990s saw his columns become not only longer (with several six and seven thousand word essays) but more convoluted with multiple layers of complexity.
Much has been made of Gould's literary style, particularly in the essays, which intermingle scientific facts and theory with a large dollop of high- and pop-culture references, foreign language phrases, poetic and literary quotations, and especially biblical passages. Most praise Gould for this third-culture style that links science to the humanities, but his critics se something more sinister in the process. In his deconstruction of Gould's essays, for example, John Alcock calls this an "ostentatious display of erudition" injected to persuade "many a reader that he is an erudite chap, one whose pronouncements have considerable credibility thanks to his knowledge of foreign languages and connections with Harvard. By advertising his scholarly credentials, Gould gains a debater's advantage, which comes into play when he contrasts his erudition with the supposed absence of same in his opponents." To prove his point Alcock took "a random selection of 20 Gouldian essays" in which he found "nine with at least one word or phrase in German, Latin, or French." Thumbing through the essays in Ever Since Darwin, Alcock "found that five of 30 contained quotes from Milton, Dryden, and other literary masters."
Setting aside the insoluble question of how many literary references and foreign language phrases are acceptable in scientific prose, a thorough analysis of all 300 essays reveals precisely how often Gould utilized these tools in his essays. The foreign phrases total includes Latin (16), French (9), German (6), and Italian (1). Not included in this count were such commonly used phrases as natura non facit saltum ("nature does not make leaps," a phrase used often in nineteenth-century natural history and the subject of an entire essay by Gould), or such everyday expressions as raison d'etre. Included were such phrases as ne plus ultra ("the ultimate"), Nosce te ipsum ("Know thyself"), Mehr Licht ("More light"), Plus 'a change, plus c'est la meme chose ("the more things change, the more they remain the same"), and the one Alcock complained about, Hier stehe ich; ich kann nicht anders; Gott helfe mir; Amen, Martin Luther's fervent cry of defense for his heresy: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise; God help me; Amen." In 300 essays written over the course of 27 years, a grand total of 32 foreign language phrases were employed, amounting to barely 10 percent of the total, or only one in ten essays. If this is a conscious strategy on Gould's part to gain "a debater's advantage," he does not utilize it very often.
Gould's literary references are more frequently employed than foreign phrases at 119 total, with the Bible (53) outnumbering the next three most quoted of Gilbert and Sullivan (21), Shakespeare (19), and Alexander Pope (8) combined. Again, there are no objective criteria on how many literary references are appropriate in scientific discourse, but we can nevertheless discern whether Gould is using them as a strategy to win arguments and wow readers, or if he is trying to make his point through as many avenues available for written prose. Not surprising (given Gould's admitted leftist upbringing), Karl Marx is often quoted. "Men make their own history, but they do not make just as they please" is used three times, but his favorite is this classic line from the Eighteenth Brumaire, quoted no less than seven times: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."
The context in which these quotations appear reveal, in fact, that Marx is used by Gould not for show or even for any political or ideological purpose, but directly to bolster his philosophy of science and to reinforce two themata that appear throughout his worksthe interaction between contingencies and necessities and the nonrepeatability of historical systems (time's arrow versus time's cycle). "In opening The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte," Gould notes in one essay, Karl Marx captured this essential property of history as a dynamic balance between the inexorability of forces and the power of individuals." Even Marx's title, Gould explains "is, itself, a commentary on the unique and the repetitive in history. The original Napoleon staged his coup d'tat against the Directory on November 9-10, 1799, then called the eighteenth day of Brumaire, Year VIII, by the revolutionary calendar adopted in 1793 and used until Napoleon crowned himself emperor and returned to the old forms. But Marx's book traces the rise of Louis-Napoleon, nephew of the emperor, from the presidency of France following the revolution of 1848, through his own coup d'tat of December 1851, to his crowning as Napoleon III. Marx seeks lessons from repetition, but continually stresses the individuality of each cycle, portraying the second in this case as a mockery of the first." To drive home the point Gould finishes this thought with a recommendation for scientists to heed the lesson: "This essential tension between the influence of individuals and the power of predictable forces has been well appreciated by historians, but remains foreign to the thoughts and procedures of most scientists."
Similarly, biblical quotations are used to deliver a deeper meaning. "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind" is an obvious example, but Gould is usually far more subtle in his employment. In an essay on James Doolittle Walcott's misreading of the Burgess Shale fossils and Gould's discussion with paleontologist T.H. Clark (who knew and worked with Walcott) on the "true" meaning of the fossils, the interpretation of them, and on how science works, Gould opines:
Lives are too rich, too multifaceted for encompassing under any one perspective (thank goodness). I am no relativist in my attitude towards truth; but I am a pluralist in my views on optimal strategies for seeking this most elusive prize. I have been instructed by T. H. Clark and his maximally different vision. There may be no final answer to Pilate's inquiry of Jesus (John 18:30), "What is truth?"and Jesus did remain silent following the question. But wisdom, which does increase with age, probes from many sides "and she is truly a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her."
Gould's intellectual pluralism is evident in his literary diversity, and he has chosen many strategies for communicating his answer to Pilate's question.
What are Stephen Jay Gould's essays about? Flipping randomly through the nine collected volumes, they seem to be all over the intellectual board. This diversity was captured poetically by science historian and lyricist Richard Milner (sung to the music of Gilbert and Sullivan's "My Name is John Wellington Wells"):
I write of cladistics – And baseball statistics – From dodos and mandrills – To friezes and spandrels – I write Essays thematical – Always grammatical – Asteroids, sesamoids, – Pestilence tragical – Ratites, stalactites – And home runs DiMaggical – I write of Cranial capacity – Owen's mendacity – Huxley's audacity – Galton's urbanity – FitzRoy's insanity – How Ernest Haeckel, without an apology – Faked illustrations about embryology.
Diversity is the watchword of this polymathic tradesman, but is there a cladistic pattern from which we may discern a literary bauplan? As it is for the evolutionary theorist, taxonomy is the key to teasing out meaningful signals from the background noise, and Figure 6 presents the results of a complete classification of all 300 essays into primary, secondary, and tertiary subjects in 13 different categories.
Starting with the lowest figures we see that Gould almost completely neglects to include both his personal hobbies such as baseball and music, as well as his intellectual child punctuated equilibrium. He dabbles in ecology and environmental issues, touches on geology and the social and behavioral sciences, and, of course, cannot ignore (but does not dwell on) his own trade of paleontology (and its relations paleobiology and paleoanthropology). Obviouslyconsidering the publication in which the essays are foundnatural history, zoology, and biology are regularly featured, even if only on the secondary or tertiary level, and since the essay genre is, by definition, personal, Gould does produce a fair amount of social commentary, but predominantly at the tertiary level. What is surprising in this graph is the overwhelming dominance of evolutionary theory and the history of science/science studies, comprising 55 percent of the total. Although the personal nature of essays suggest they need not be taken as seriously as, say, major peer-reviewed journal articles and monographs, clearly Gould is using them to a larger purpose involving not only his interest in theory and history, but as an avenue to generate original contributions to and commentary on both. And it would seem from this graph that Gould is, first and foremost, an evolutionary theorist. Or is he? To explore this question further, Figure 7 shows the 13 subject categories collapsed into five, highlighting only the primary subjects.
What is Gould primarily interested in writing about in his essays? While evolutionary theory and the history and philosophy of science once again dominate (comprising 75 percent of the total), they have flip-flopped in dominance from the totals in Figure 6. That is, the history of science and science studies (which includes philosophy of science) now overwhelm all other subjects, nearly doubling evolutionary theory and almost totalling more than all other categories combined. What is going on here? What is Gould up to when he blends the history and philosophy of science and science studies with evolutionary theory?
Part of an answer can be found in an analysis of Gould's historical time frame, and especially in Figure 8 that presents a breakdown of Gould's essays on the history and philosophy of science by primary, secondary, and tertiary emphasis.
Out of the 300 essays a remarkable 220 (73 percent) contain a significant historical element, with half (109) in the nineteenth century and nearly a third (64) in the twentieth. Since Gould's primary historical interest is the history of evolutionary theory we should not be surprised by this ratio since the last two centuries have been the theory's heyday. Yet it is also important to note that the history of evolutionary theory is bracketed in Figure 8 by the philosophy of science on the right and the relationship between culture and science on the left. All other interests pale by comparison, revealing Gould's intense interest in the interaction of history, theory, philosophy, and culture. For Gould they are inseparable. Doing science also means doing the history and philosophy of science, and as a historian and philosopher of science Gould is intensely interested in the interaction between individual scientists and their culture. This is why there are in these 220 historical essays, no less than 76 significant biographical portraits, a number of which include original contributions to the historical record. For example, Gould conducted a thorough analysis of Leonardo's paleontological observations and his theory of the earth as presented in the Leicester Codex, showing that he was no out-of-time visionary but was instead deeply wedded to the pre-modern world-view of the sixteenth century.
Gould's work in the history of science can also be seen quantitatively in the annual Current Bibliographies of the History of Science Society journal Isis. Although some years are sparse, such as 1991 and 1992 with just three references each and 1997 with only two, other years show Gould outpublishing all other historians with, for example, 24 references in 1986, 16 references in 1988, and 12 in 1989. Gould's overall average reference rate in the Isis Bibliography indexes between 1977 when his first two books were published and 1999 is 7.34 (169 references in 23 years). The only names with more references are historical figures, and among these only the most prominent have more, such as Aristotle, Kant, Goethe, and Newton. No other historian comes close to Gould in generating this much history of science, and these figures, conjoined with the rest of this analysis, supports Ronald Numbers' equation of Gould with Kuhn as one of the two most influential historians of science.
Even more important than the history of science in Gould's writings is his philosophy of history, as evidenced in five thematic pairs representing some of the deepest themes in Western thought that appear in every one of the 300 essays. Classifying Gould's essays into one of five different thematic pairs reveals how inseparable are history, theory, philosophy, and science. The five themata are, in order of their importance in Gould's writings with the number of essays classified in each:
TheoryData (Culture/Science; Concepts/Percepts) 143
Time's ArrowTime's Cycle (Change/Progress; Bushes/Ladders) 80
ContingencyNecessity (History/Law; Directionless/Directed) 36
Frank Sulloway identified the second theme, Time's ArrowTime's Cycle, as an important element in Gould's work, from his first published paper in 1965 on the multiple meanings of uniformitarianism, to his first book in 1977 on Ontogeny and Phylogeny, to his 1987 book Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle, giving the thematic taxon its name. As Sulloway noted: "The more one reviews his writing over the years, the more one sees just how central this and another thematic pair of ideascontinuity and discontinuityare in his thinking. If time's cycle stands for the immanence of law and time's arrow for the uniqueness of history, then Gould's dual career as a scientist and as a historian of science represents perhaps his greatest commitment to these two ways of understanding time." Indeed, as Gerald Holton has so well explicated the principle, such themata are integral to the scientific process. Sulloway adds that such thematic pairs not only illuminate how science works, but how the history of science operates, particularly in the works of Gould in his dual role as historian of science and scientific historian:
Gould is one of those rare scientists who fully appreciates that the past is not always "just history" and that many problems in science cannot be conceptualized correctly unless one escapes the intellectual straitjacket of prevailing scientific mythologies. In this sense scientists are actually influenced by history all the time, even though they often disdain the subject as a waste of time. "The textbook legends they fashion around their scientific heroes are value-laden visions of the world that often limit the possibility of weighing reasonable alternatives," as Gould has emphasized about the history of geology. Thus doing the history of science is, for Gould at least, an essential part of doing good science.
Doing good science is also an essential part of doing good history, a deeper theme that runs through this analysis. The two are inseparable for Gould.