Interview: Gould shares thoughts on science
by Shalini Bhargava
any children 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 within - there'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 beliefs - and 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 social philosophy."
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 subjects - human behavior, now that's difficult," Gould said.
Gould's resume includes a now-famous guest-appearance on "The Simpsons."
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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