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. |
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 Gouldevolutionary biologist, prolific
writer and die-hard Yankees fanhas 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 Gouldan
ebullient man with a near-perpetual smileis 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
"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 itfrom the sexual
cannibalism of the black widow spider, the disappearance of .400 hitters in
baseball and the appalling case of the
an African woman who was displayed in a cage for the delectation of
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 thingsnot
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
usthe pinnacle of creation
but a closer examination
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 itfascinating 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 categoriesregular, 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 thingsI 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 Collegewhere he met the woman who would
become his wife, Deborah Lee, now an artist and writer who teaches at
GrotonGould 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 dayCerion, 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
equilibriumor "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.
statement about genius being 99 percent perspiration and one percent
inspiration is just aboutright."
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 Historywhich 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 Cerionan 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 stopshe 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
Yorkerhe 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
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
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 treatmentfirst,
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 evolutionboth 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
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
"One of the problems is this mythology that scientists
are people apartthat 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 dofight 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 collectora 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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