Interview: Gould shares thoughts on science
by Shalini Bhargava
grow up with a keen interest in fossils and dinosaurs, but few, like evolutionary
biologist Stephen Jay Gould, make it to the ranks of a world-famous paleontologist.
"I was fascinated by dinosaurs as a kid even at the age of five
or six. I went to museums," Gould said. That childhood interest in fossils has lead
to a multidimensional career for Gould, who has written almost 20 books and teaches
at Harvard University where he is the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and
Professor of Geology.
"I'm internally motivated. [My work] is not an issue of social
purpose," he said. "It may sound indulgent, but [there's a need] to do withinthere's
a fire inside that keeps burning in creative people. Most people go into academic life for
a whole set of reasons; they are often motivated by fairly idealistic beliefsand
I mean that in the best way."
Gould's work extends beyond the bounds of academic writing into social
commentary. In 1994, Gould wrote a critical review in The
New Yorker of "The Bell Curve," a book by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein.
Gould attacked each of the book's premises, decrying the use of "biological determinism as
Gould objects to the use of biological determinism as a social philosophy,
not out of a distrust of deterministic theories in general, but because determinism is
inappropriate when applied to the issue of human intelligence.
"I don't distrust deterministic theories. I have no problem with celestial
mechanics, but that approach to human intelligence is wrong for a whole set of reasons."
Gould also rejected the idea that understanding evolution at the micro-level
discounts a broader understanding of evolutionary processes. There's no trade-off between the
two levels of understanding, he said. Commenting on the stereotype of the sciences as a source
of analytically rigorous predictive tools, Gould maintained the convention of valuing
prediction over explanation has its roots in history.
Initial discoveries in physics and astronomy by
Sir Issac Newton proved highly
successful, and from these early successes grew an increasing fixation on prediction and
predictive tools, Gould suggested.
"Laplace, the great determinist said of [math and science], these are easy
subjectshuman behavior, now that's difficult," Gould said. Gould's
resume includes a now-famous
Gould agreed to work on the episode because the script was "interesting," and it only took 10
minutes, he said. "I didn't see it initially until the day it was shown," he said.
[ Shalini Bhargava, The Stanford Daily Friday, November 6, 1998. ]
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