This guy’s got eyes in the back of his head. He can sense
the gist of an important issue and cut to the chase faster than anyone else I’ve
Ever Since Darwin, was published in 1976. Ten more
Norton titles bearing Steve's name followed, including three national best-sellers.
As millions of copies sold around the world, Steve's books found a public eager
for not only more of Gould but also more of science in all its variety. If the
barrier between good scientific writing and a lay audience no longer exists, it
is because Steve Gould stepped over it and then knocked it down.
Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology, American Museum of Natural History,
and coauthor (with Stephen Jay Gould) of the theory of punctuated equilibria
So how good is Steve Gould? I'll tell you. The guy has eyes in
the back of his head. He sees stufffossils, ideas, whatever. He can sense the
gist of an important issue and cut to the chase faster than anyone else I've ever
met, and I've worked with some really smart people. I saw this first when we went
out on a field trip to some Miocene formations in Maryland in the early spring of
1965. Steve was one of seven or eight second-year students in Columbia University's
graduate program in paleontology. I was a senior at the college, eager to hang
outand glad to be included in the mix. We had a ball, eating Southern food at
an extravaganza of a church cookout and collecting some of the most gorgeous fossils
on Earth. But Steve, at least in my eyes, totally stole the show: of the thousands
of specimens of the snail Turritella plebeia lying around, he found the only
aberrant specimenone that was to figure in one of his earliest papers. The
guy had eyes.
My usual rap on Steve is that I have never met a smarter person
who works as hard as he does. That's as true now as it was back in the late 1960s,
when my wife and I went up to Cambridge to visit the Goulds and the fabulous
collection of trilobites that Steve's predecessor, Harry Whittington, had left in
Steve's Harvard office. Dinner over, the evening getting late, we went to bed, but
as I was dropping off, I heard the sound of Steve's by-now-famous manual typewriter
as he wrote a review (I think it was of a new publication of the letters of
Charles Lyell). Man, that guy could put
the time in.
But that's hard work, not necessarily insight. And Steve has had
plenty of insights. Although he is justifiably proud that he hasn't used his column
in Natural History as a bully pulpit to push the views he has developed
professionally over the years, Steve's readers nonetheless will probably recognize
his notion of contingency in the evolutionary
process, which is his huge insight into a major evolutionary signal embedded in the
fossilized history of life on Earth.
But I digress. We're not talking here of simple vision, or even
of just intellectual insight. I said at the outset that the man has eyes in the back
of his head. Here's how I know: Steve and I were in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1981,
attending a well-publicized "equal time" creationism trial, he to testify, I to
cover the trial for the American Association for the Advancement of Science's
magazine Science 81. We left together for the airport for our flight back to
La Guardia, doing a joint TV interview in the car on the way.
So we get on the plane, and I do my usual and order a martini.
Steve sips water or something. We talk, and I remember dominating the conversation
(atypically; no doubt the booze). Some point in the trip, I get up for a visit to
the loo. (Steve remembers that he got up first for the same reason.) Whatever. By
the time I come back up the aisle, Steve is deeply engaged in conversation with a
man and woman in the seats directly behind us. Remember, we were flying from Little
Rock, and we had already met many of the state's political figures. Steve had
found one we hadn't metthe one out of power. So he introduces me to Bill
Clinton, the temporarily out-of-office governor of Arkansas, and Bill introduces
the political consultant traveling with him. (Steve says he doesn't remember her.)
They're traveling to New York to visit a firm on Madison Avenue to help Bill decide
when he should make his move to become president of the United States.
Uh-huh. But there it is—eyes behind the head: Steve sees what's
happening (sometimes misses a few details). And when he sees what's going on, even
if it is behind him, he jumps in. Like Reggie Jackson, he stirs the drink. Always
has, always will. Like I said, man's got eyes in the back of his head.
Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
In all my years of teaching with Steve, I have never seen him
flustered or at a loss for words—except once. In our course entitled "Thinking About
Thinking," he had been presenting a lecture on the randomness of nature and referred
to Einstein's famous dictum "I shall never believe that God plays dice with the
world." I responded by walking up to the blackboard and writing, "Gould or God?" I
then argued that if God does not play dice with the universe, as Einstein said, and
if the universe is as random as the throws of honest dice, as Gould says, then there
could not be a God. Hence, Gould or God? (Or at the very least, Gould or Einstein?)
Then I sat down,