Unofficial SJG Archive

The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive

Unofficial SJG Archive

Stephen Jay Gould: Driven By a Hunger to Learn and to Write

by Michelle Green

"The main reason I write is that the world is very complicated, and when I write I learn," says Gould, whose tirelessly probing imagination has already yeilded six books. 

t is an inviting, vaguely antic enclave that suggests a 19th-century natual history museum turned into a bookish boys' club. Faded lettering on the drab green walls announces "Synopsis of the Animal Kingdom" and "Sponges and Protozoa," and in the room's cluttered depths are a wealth of musty treasures: tall glass cases filled with drawers of trilobites, a towering painting of a Tyrannosaurus, hundreds of leather-bound volumes and boxes of snail shells. A worn rattan chair has been pulled up to a worktable that holds fossils, microscopes and a supply of Pepperidge Farm cookies.

Stephen Jay Gould—evolutionary biologist, prolific writer and die-hard Yankees fan—has worked in this office at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology for 17 years, and many of his books have been spawned here: Ever Since Darwin, The Panda's Thumb, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes and now The Flamingo's Smile (Norton, $17.95). When he arrived with his freshly minted Ph.D. from Columbia, the rumpled, kinetic Gould was an exceptionally promising paleontologist; in the years since, he has become a popular symbol of erudition and scholarship. At 44, he recently completed the final year of a MacArthur Foundation grant that has paid him $38,400 a year since 1981. He was the recipient of an American Book Award in 1981, a National Magazine Award in 1980 and once made the cover of Newsweek. He has done battle with creationists, testified before congressional committees concerning nuclear winter and lectured in South Africa on the history of racism. Students fight to get into his classroom, and assorted crazies send tirades addressed to Mr. Illustrious Historical Professor Jay Gould, University of Harvard.

On this stone-gray afternoon, the illustrious historical professor is finding all the attention a bit of a problem. His secretary is putting through calls approximately every two minutes, and Gould—an ebullient man with a near-perpetual smile—is simultaneously trying to discuss his life's work and fend off a flood of petitioners. On his desk is the latest batch of correspondence, including a letter from a man who suggests a connection between AIDS and aspirin, and a plea from the husband of a woman who is addicted to Gould's columns in DISCOVER: Will the author please send birthday greetings to the following address? This nets the correspondent a hastily scrawled turndown: "I am not public property, but a man!"

"People perceive me as a commodity," marvels Gould. "They just don't think anything of asking for five minutes of my time. It never occurs to them that if they're asking for it and another thousand people are asking, I don't have 1,000 five minutes to give."

The source of Gould's magnetism is obvious: He is a man with a limitless sense of wonder, a scientist besotted with his work. In The Flamingo's Smile, his latest collection of essays, he displays a novelist's ability to "[let] generalities cascade out of particulars," as he puts it. Gould takes his inspiration where he finds it—from the sexual cannibalism of the black widow spider, the disappearance of .400 hitters in baseball and the appalling case of the "Hottentot Venus," an African woman who was displayed in a cage for the delectation of 19th-century Europeans.

Unlike the stereotypical man of science, Gould is a humanist who brings to his writing a wide range of personal passions. A baritone who sings in Boston's Cecilia Society, he adores Gilbert and Sullivan almost as much as he loves the game of baseball: Childhood hero Joe DiMaggio, he says, "taught me the meaning of excellence." He finds language similarly absorbing; fluent in French, he reads Spanish, Italian and Latin and took a stab at Swahili when he visited colleague Richard Leakey in Africa last winter. He delights in the euphonious phrase, the mot juste; in The Flamingo's Smile, he notes the beauty of "by-the-wind sailor," the common name for the jellyfish-like siphonophore Velella.

"I'm not a great deductive thinker," Gould says, "but I will admit to having competence in a very wide range of things—not being afraid to try to write about baseball, choral music and dinosaurs in the same week and see connections among them.…[And] to me, how you say a thing is enormously important. So many scientists think that once they figure it out, that's all they have to do, and writing it up is just a chore. I never saw it that way; part of the art of any kind of total scholarship is to say it well."

Never mind that there are those who see evolutionary biology as a subject only slightly more immediate than, say, semiotics. "Evolution," says Gould, "is one of the two or three most primally fascinating subjects in all the sciences. My stock line is that it's the Roots phenomenon writ large. Evolution is the only science that deals with who we are and where we came from and, perhaps, where we are going."

For Gould, the notion of an "evolutionary ladder" leading to homo sapiens is a solipsistic absurdity. "Our standard view of the history of life is more based on our hopes and expectations than the realities of nature," he has said. "We try so hard to see nature as a progressive process leading in a predictable and determined way towards us—the pinnacle of creation…but a closer examination…shows nothing of the sort. History is quirky, full of random events. There's no vector of progress.…I don't find that at all depressing. Nature is as we find it—fascinating as can be."

Even as a child, Steve Gould had the makings of a scientist. "He was very inquisitive," says his mother, Eleanor, an artist who lives near the Queens, N.Y. neighborhood where she and her late husband, Leonard, raised Steve and his younger brother, Peter. "At 5 or 6, he'd go to the beach and classify shells into categories—regular, extraordinary and unusual. And he had lots of collections: baseball cards, cigarette packages. I'd accommodate him by smoking a different brand every time."

Steve chose his career at the age of 5, when his father, a courtstenographer, took him to the Hall of Dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History. The towering skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex, triggered his decision. "I had no idea there were such things—I was awestruck," says Gould. Although he didn't know the word, he left the museum determined to become a paleontologist. The impulse didn't run in the family. One grandfather was a roofer, the other a brassiere and corset designer. But his father was a self-taught man with an agile mind, and "the family had a respect for learning," says Gould. "Of course, it was absolutely necessary in terms of kiddie culture to claim that you didn't like school, but I always loved it."

At Antioch College—where he met the woman who would become his wife, Deborah Lee, now an artist and writer who teaches at Groton—Gould steeped himself in geology, biology and philosophy. As a graduate student at Columbia, he fell under the thrall of the modest but astonishingly various creature that he studies to this day—Cerion, the Bahamian land snail. To the amazement of his confreres, he also began publishing in scholarly journals. "He was a great role model," remembers fellow paleontologist Niles Eldridge. "As graduate students, we had the feeling we had to wait 20 or 30 years to publish important papers. Steve proved that wasn't so."

With Eldridge, the professed iconoclast Gould developed the heretical theory of punctuated equilibrium—or "punk eke," as it is known. While orthodox Darwinians hold that major evolutionary changes are accomplished through minute adaptations and take place over eons, Eldridge and Gould postulated that new species arise abruptly, then settle down into lengthy intervals of stability. It was a ground-breaking notion, "but I can't say that it came as a Eureka experience," Gould says. "Creativity is a struggle.…Edison's statement about genius being 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration is just aboutright."

Stephen Jay Gould with Pope 
John Paul II.
During a 1984 Vatican conference on the environmental consequences of nuclear war, Gould who helped write a statement on the subject, enjoyed an audience with his host. 

Perspiration has been a constant in Gould's life. He keeps a schedule of writing, teaching and field work that would drain a less driven man. He is likely to spend hours paging through obscure books to research a single essay for Natural History—which often is written in a single dead-of-night draft at his ancient Smith-Corona. He has also spent weeks combing the scattered islands of the Caribbean in search of telling specimens of Cerion—an enterprise that has both bizarre and uncomfortable aspects. "It's hot, and the bushes are full of sand flies and mosquitos," says his frequent companion David S. Woodruff, an associate professor of evolutionary biology at the University of California at San Diego. "Steve never stops—he likes to go out without breakfast, work until dark, eat and then work after dinner. I'll go to bed at midnight, and he'll work until 3 and get up at 6 the next morning."

Since the government of the Bahamas forbids camping, the two often bunk at tourist hotels. "We've wandered in and out of resorts with muddy feet, carrying bags of snails through casinos where there are ladies in jewels," Woodruff says. "The islands are full of drug-related violence; we run into crashed planes and beached boats. We once found ourselves staying at a hotel in which the room next door was the only other one that was occupied. In the middle of the night someone broke in, beat up the couple inside and fired off a shotgun. Steve behaved like a typical New Yorker—he was much less excited than I was."

That imperturbability was given its severest test in July 1982, when Gould underwent surgery to remove a lump that his physician discovered during a routine prostate examination. Upon awakening, he was told that he was suffering from abdominal mesothelioma, a malignancy often associated with exposure to asbestos. His doctor was charitably vague when Gould asked about technical literature on the disease. After Gould went to the medical library at Harvard and called up the information on the computer, he saw why. Mesothelioma, it seemed, was incurable, with a median life expectancy of eight months after discovery.

Gould was stunned but concluded his chances were better than they looked: He was young, highly motivated, his disease had been caught early, and he could get the best medical care in America. He subjected himself to an aggressive program of treatment—first, radiation to shrink a remaining tumor, then more surgery and later an experimental form of chemotherapy. Peritonitis set in while high doses of chemicals were being pumped into his abdomen, and he nearly died from the infection. By the time it was over, he had lost much of his hair and 62 pounds had been leeched from his 180-pound frame. "I fully expected him to die," remembers his mother. "But his attitude was so positive."

Gould is characteristically unsentimental about the ancillary benefits of toughing it out. "It would be nice to say, 'Well, it was miserable and I gritted my teeth and got through it, but boy, I really learned some things.' Unfortunately, that's not true," says Gould. "I don't think I learned anything fundamental." At one point, he remembers, a colleague reminded Gould that no matter what happened, he would at least have the satisfaction of knowing he had written all that he knew. "I said, 'You're right,'" Gould recalls. "'If I don't make it, I'll be very sad that there are things I didn't do, but I'm happy that I've done what I have.'"

Still, Gould allows that there is a certain urgency now. Though he feels well and seems to have conquered his illness, he is conscious of parts of his agenda not yet fulfilled. He wants to see sons Jesse, 16, and Ethan, 12, grow up. He wants to complete two more major books on evolution—both 10-year projects, by his reckoning. He wants to write "an insider's John McPhee" on Canada's fossil-rich Burgess Shale, and he wants to continue his essays for Natural History. "I could not dent the richness in a hundred lifetimes," he writes in The Flamingo's Smile, "but I simply must have a look at a few more of those pretty pebbles."

He is forging ahead, then, as he always has, untroubled that some colleagues see him as a flashy philistine who somehow tarnishes science by talking it up to the masses. "There's a great deal of resentment of him in the scientific community," says David Raup, a geology professor at the University of Chicago. "People say he's glib and superficial. It's widely assumed that Steve spends most of his time looking for publicity. People think he's ambitious in conventional terms because he's so successful, but he shows none of the normal characteristics of raw ambition."

"One of the problems is this mythology that scientists are people apart—that they must keep out of the public eye, that they must be intrinsically modest, that science is not about personality," Gould says. "Anybody who knows anything about the history of science knows what utter nonsense that is. Look at the life of any great scientist, from Galileo to Darwin. They're human beings, they have egos like everyone else. Galileo was one of the greatest self-promoters ever known. I have to ignore [people who resent me]. What am I going to do—fight them?"

The light is fading, and Gould is due at home: Son Jesse has a violin lesson. On the way back to his office, there is talk of Richard Leakey and his latest finds, of Bill James's Historical Baseball Abstract, of various oddments that have caught Gould's attention. At 5 p.m., he sets out on the solitary walk to his small Victorian house, carrying the sort of briefcase that seems just right for a grown-up collector—a battered brown satchel bearing stickers from everywhere in the world. Heading into the cold Cambridge sunset, he is already thinking new thoughts.

[ Michelle Green, "Stephen Jay Gould; driven by a hunger to learn and to write what he knows, an outspoken scientist fight back from life-threatening illness." People 25 (June 2, 1986): 109-114. ]

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