Unofficial SJG Archive

The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive

Unofficial SJG Archive



This View of Stephen Jay Gould

A Celebration of a quarter Century of Natural History columns by America's Evolutionist Laureate

Published in Natural History magazine.


Stephen Jay Gould inside the mouth 
of a Kronosaurus, a Cretaceous short-
necked plesiosaur.
Natural History magazine, November 1999. 

T
wenty-five years ago, in January 1974, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould began writing "This View of Life," his series of monthly essays for this magazine. In the tradition of Thomas Henry Huxley (who was known as Darwin's bulldog), Gould ranged widely over philosophy, history, science, art, and literature—all from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist.

Gould took his title from the concluding sentence of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. While others shrank from the idea of an animal ancestry for humans, Darwin had trumpeted, "There is grandeur in this view of life." To date, Gould has written nearly 300 essays under that rubric and will continue to write them up to the millennium (January 1, 2001, by his reckoning). Many of these essays have been collected and republished in a series of popular, influential books.

At this milestone, some of Gould's many friends, fans, and colleagues offer thoughts about the man and his achievements.

EDWIN BARBER
Vice Chairman and Senior
Editorial Director, W.W. Norton & Company


Not long ago, Charles Darwin's evolutionary "view of life" was not so much revered or reviled in America as it was simply ignored—trapped in science classrooms and technical monographs, without a messenger to carry its intellectual riches to a wider audience. In giving evolutionary biology an exciting voice, Stephen Jay Gould proved that a great audience awaits great writing about science.

In 1974 I was a new editor at W.W. Norton and blessed by being able to spend hours in the New York Public Library. There I first came across Natural History and read an essay entitled "Size and Shape." Several paragraphs in, I saw a big principle made clear: in prose both elegant and reassuringly down-to-earth, it explained such curiosities as why elephants must have such big bones, and Gothic cathedrals their flying buttresses.

That afternoon, I wrote to Steve about the piece—his first column, it turned out, under the rubric "This View of Life" and thus a most contingent event, which proved that although luck may favor the prepared mind, it is nonetheless luck. "What's a smart fellow like you doing with no books in print?" I asked. Several days later, we had lunch in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then walked back across Harvard Yard to Steve's office, a cavernous former exhibit space in Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. The room was filled with case after case of trilobites and "his" animal, the Bahamian land snail (genus

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Cerion), as well as what was surely the world's largest collection of embossed plastic airline coffee cups. There was also a photograph of Steve, his son Ethan, and Joe DiMaggio at a Little League park in San Francisco. DiMaggio holds a baseball, fouled off his bat at Yankee Stadium in the forties and caught by a very young Stephen Jay Gould, who was seated down the third-base line with his father.

Soon after, I signed Steve to write The Mismeasure of Man. Not until three years later, when Steve had thirty-three columns under his belt, did it occur to either of us that the Natural History pieces should be gathered between hard covers. The first collection,

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“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 met.”


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.

NILES ELDREDGE
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 stuff—fossils, 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 out—and 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 specimen—one 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 met—the 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.

ALAN DERSHOWITZ
Felix Frankfurter 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,

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leaving it to Steve to answer the challenge. He stood up and looked at the words on the blackboard. He hesitated, gathered his thoughts, and then launched into a defense of God so brilliant that even William Jennings Bryan would have been proud. It was then that I realized what a great lawyer Gould would make. As for God...?

I. MICHAEL HEYMAN
Secretary, Smithsonian Institution


Stephen Jay Gould's first impact on Smithsonian history might be reduced to one word: shale.

Why shale? The Smithsonian's fourth secretary, Charles Doolittle Walcott, presided over the institution from 1907 until 1927. Walcott was best known for his studies in pre-Cambrian and Cambrian geology and paleontology and had spent years interpreting the rich fossil record of the Burgess Shale in western Canada.

But Stephen Jay Gould determined that Walcott had got it all wrong with the Burgess Shale. The fossil record did not tell the particular tale of evolution as Walcott read it, Gould claimed, but instead illustrated a nondeterministic and highly opportunistic proliferation of life-forms—nature's imperfections triumphing over some grand design—as the bedrock of biological progress.

Frankly, we're thankful that Steve isn't afraid to topple theories and myths, even at the expense of a Smithsonian secretary. He has played a key role on several Smithsonian boards, including the Commission on the Future of the Smithsonian during the years 1993–95. The commission consisted of twenty-two prominent leaders in many fields, assembled to advise us on critical directions for the institution in the years to come. Much of its final report benefited from Steve's highly active pen and, certainly, from his zest for synthesizing disparate fields of knowledge.

Congratulations, Steve, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of your monthly labor of love for Natural History magazine—even if you caused Secretary Walcott several revolutions in his grave.

DAN KEVLES
J.O. and Juliette Koepfli Professor of the Humanities;
Director, Program in Science, Ethics, and Public Policy, California Institute of Technology


Steve's piece on the decline of the .400 hitter is one of my favorites. Its argument applies to hitters in many worlds beyond baseball, explaining why in maturing fields it gets progressively harder to be number one, a fact of life that some scientists and scientific institutions find difficult to accept. I've been dining out on it for years. That essay alone is sufficient reason to join with other fans in feting Steve here in his home ballpark.

I first met Steve one autumn afternoon in 1981, when he joined my wife, Bettyan, and me for coffee and chocolate cake on Brattle Street in Cambridge. I was working on a history of eugenics. I'd already gotten a taste of Steve's talent for explaining things clearly from reading his sharp dissection of British psychologist Charles Spearman's "g" factor and why it was meaningless as a measure of general intelligence. So I wasn't surprised when I asked him for a definition of "clades" (at that time a controversial organizing principle in evolutionary biology) and promptly received a succinct explanation of the term. Later that year, I discovered Steve's love of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas (which he indulges by singing in local productions whenever he can). The more I learned about him, the more his interests seemed boundless. I sometimes thought of him the way the great biologist J.B.S. Haldane was once characterized: "Ce n'est pas un homme. C'est une force de la nature."

But nature reminded us that Steve is human and vulnerable. We heard while home in California that he had been hit by cancer, one of the worst kinds, with a mortality rate that discouraged hope for survival. It was Steve himself who brightened the gloom, in an essay memorable for its resolute courage and its incisive explanation that the odds didn't mean a sentence of certainty. He fought against the numbers and won. I think it's not too much to say that other cancer victims may gain hope from his inspiring essay as much as from his victory over the disease.

Steve has a propensity for not let–

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ting intellectual differences become personal ones. In the 1980s he helped keep creationism out of the public schools, testifying in an Arkansas courtroom that the subject had no place in science courses. Yet he sat in the drugstore in Dayton, Tennessee, where the Scopes trial began, chatting amiably with contemporary opponents of the teaching of evolution, sharing a cold drink on a hot day.

“He sat in the drugstore in Dayton, Tennessee, chatting amiably with opponents of evolution, sharing a cold drink on a hot day.”



RICHARD LEWONTIN
Alexander Agassiz Research Professor of Zoology, Harvard University


I want to remark on an aspect of Steve Gould's creative activity with which the readers of Natural History magazine may not be acquainted: his university teaching. Steve and I have taught the general course in evolution at Harvard for about fifteen years, a course that was not previously offered, despite the fact that we are in the Department of Organismal and Evolutionary Biology. The students are, of course, attracted to the lectures by Steve's reputation, but they get some surprises.

They are treated to sophisticated, learned, and complex verbal essays on many of the same matters that are the subjects of Steve's Natural History columns. To keep a firm hold on Latin phrases and the names of eighteenth-century naturalists deeply embedded in dependent clauses within dependent clauses of dependent clauses taxes even the best Harvard undergraduates. Some relief from intense concentration comes in the form of such visual aids as cartoons from the New Yorker and Punch. Then there are the arguments between the lecturers. Steve and I attend each other's lectures, sit in the front row, and interject critical remarks when we don't agree with what is being said on matters such as species selection or exactly what is meant by "punctuated equilibrium." The students get to experience a kind of Socratic dialogue in the lecture room, which annoys those who think that their tuition money should buy them definitive answers but which delights others.

Quite aside from the nature of the performance, the content of Biology 17 bears the unmistakable imprint of the Gouldian view of evolution, which is, ironically, similar to this passage from Ecclesiastes: "For the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither bread to the wise man, nor yet riches to men of understanding... but time and chance happeneth to all." That is a truth that students of evolution will be hard put to acquire elsewhere and whose acquisition is well worth their tuition.

LYNN MARGULIS
Distinguished University Professor,
Department of Geosciences,
University of Massachusetts Amherst


Steve, I remember your cheerful and dazzling commentary at the fascinating 1970 Harvard symposium organized by Ray Siever on the evolution of the atmosphere, where we first met. At the time, you were so intensely focused on hard-shelled mollusks and their evolutionary patterns that I could not have predicted the eventual expansion of your interests to embrace the entire panoply of life. Just a few years later, biologist Karlene V. Schwartz and I became fascinated with the distinguished ecologist R.H. Whittaker's ideas on how to categorize the various groups or kingdoms of life-forms. He had been too modest to expand his then-radical "five kingdoms" idea into a book-length manuscript, so we decided to do it for him—in a comprehensive textbook on biodiversity. (Among other innovations in classification, Whittaker's respect for fungi and other small organisms had led him to elevate their taxonomic status, along with that of algae and other protoctists; molecular evolution studies have borne out the correctness of his analysis.) We had hoped that Whittaker would write the foreword to our book, but in 1980, just as it was nearing completion, he died. We feared there was no other biologist who had both the audacity to endorse the new views and the authority to help them gain rapid acceptance. You gallantly rescued us, characterizing the five-kingdoms system and the expansion of phyla to nearly a hundred as "new and exciting ways of thinking about organisms and their evolution." Fate, which figured so largely in your analyses of

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the uniqueness of the historical course of life, decreed that you should help give credence and currency to the innovative five-kingdom view of life.

MICHAEL SHERMER
Publisher of Skeptic magazine and author of
How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science


Five years into the editing and publishing of Skeptic magazine, I discovered to my embarrassment that I had never once bothered to examine the history of the word "skeptic" until Stephen Jay Gould, in his foreword to my book Why People Believe Weird Things, noted its etymology (it comes from the Greek skeptikos, for "thoughtful"—far from modern misconceptions of the word as meaning "cynical" or "nihilistic"). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in fact, "skeptical" has also meant "inquiring," "reflective," and, with variations in the ancient Greek, "watchman" or "mark to aim at."

Taking into account all these usages, particularly the final one, I acknowledge—on behalf of a modest skeptical movement that has taken hold on the border where science and pseudoscience intersect—the debt owed to one of the salient watchmen of our community. Gould's Mismeasure of Man—a frontal attack on the pseudoscience of racial ranking according to intelligence—has become a classic in skeptical debunking. Gould's role as an expert witness in the "Scopes II" creationism trial in 1981 aided Judge William Overton in his clarification of creation science as nothing more than thinly disguised biblical literalism; his involvement in the amicus curiae brief presented to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Louisiana creationism trial in 1987 closed the door that had been opened to creationists in the original 1925 trial. Gould's skeptical (here read "inquiring") 1970s critiques of sociobiology and his 1990s critiques of its descendant, evolutionary psychology, provided a necessary balance to the hyperadaptationism of some proponents who sought to whittle the complexities of human behavior down to a handful of pseudolaws. And perhaps most significantly (to this observer, anyway), his skeptical (here read "reflective") critique of the warfare model of science and religion has shown how and why these non-overlapping magisteria are best left to flourish along separate phylogenies.

“Gould's critique of evolutionary psychology provided a necessary balance to the theories of those who sought to whittle the complexities of human behavior down to a handful of pseudolaws.”


Given these contributions to the skeptical movement (and so many more, left out of this all-too-brief recounting), what finer tribute to pay to Stephen Jay Gould than to call him a skeptic in the finest sense of the word: a mark to aim at?

NORMAN D. NEWELL
Curator Emeritus of Invertebrates,
American Museum of Natural History


Like many people, when I receive my monthly copy of Natural History, I first search for Steve Gould's excellent column. I am continually amazed by his industriousness and high standards, which have made him one of our foremost popular essayists. He covers a virtually endless variety of topics in his beautiful, flowing prose, succinctly explaining complex scientific principles, and he influences many with his infectious enthusiasm for science.

He has devoted his professional life to the search for truth in evolutionary biology and has shared his conclusions through astoundingly prolific writings. No doubt you have all read of his rapture when his father brought him, at age five, to the American Museum of Natural History and introduced him to Tyrannosaurus rex. It was love at first sight, and neither Steve nor the dinosaur would ever be the same again. This encounter started Steve on a career devoted to the history of life.

As teenagers, he and his schoolmate Richard Milner (now a senior editor at

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this magazine) frequently visited the Museum and came to see me. That was my first contact with Steve, and since then, from the time he was my Ph.D. student at the Museum and at Columbia University until the present day, I have continued to be stimulated and excited by his work.

One incident from his student days illustrates well his enthusiasm and abilities. I gave him several preserved specimens of a rare Neotrigonia bivalve from the Tasman Sea. When Steve protested that he had never dissected a bivalve mollusk before, I suggested that he visit the Fulton fish market and buy a few commercial clams. He took them home and practiced dissecting them, with a student laboratory manual to aid him in the identification of the organs. Steve moved ahead like a professional, eventually using new details of the Neotrigonia for a scientific publication—his first, I believe—on this astonishing "living fossil."

“When Gould was five, his father brought him to the Museum and introduced him to Tyrannosaurus rex. Neither Steve nor the dinosaur would ever be the same again.”


In 1972 Niles Eldredge and Steve published an epochal theory that they called punctuated equilibria, which has greatly influenced scientific understanding of evolutionary patterns. Steve Gould has also influenced the public through his passion for science and his rare skill at expressing himself. He is an extraordinarily talented human being.

ERNST MAYR
Professor Emeritus of Comparative
Zoology, Harvard University


What is particularly delightful about Steve's writing is the virtuosity with which he connects seemingly unrelated subjects to illuminate and strengthen his arguments. Whether right or wrong, Steve is always stimulating, and this is perhaps where he has made his greatest contribution—in awakening in thousands, if not millions, of his readers an enthusiasm for the secrets of this wonderful world of ours.

MICHAEL RUSE
Professor of Philosophy and Zoology,
University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada


In 1981 the state of Arkansas legislated that if schoolchildren were to be taught evolution, then they must also be taught something called creation science—better known to the rest of us as biblical literalism. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

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mounted a legal challenge to the new law, on constitutional grounds. Its lawyers marshaled experts to attack the scientific validity of claims that Earth is but a few thousand years old, that all organisms, including humans, were created miraculously in the space of a week, and that God decided to destroy most of his creation with a worldwide flood. Among the expert witnesses were several biologists and paleontologists, including Stephen Jay Gould, and one philosopher (me).

Thanks to the success of Ever Since Darwin, a collection of his Natural History essays, Gould was already the best-known evolutionist in America. Somewhat paradoxically, his appearance seemed to gladden the hearts of the lawyers for the state. They knew Gould had a Marxist background and was critical of conventional Darwinism. In fact, he had argued that his (and Niles Eldredge's) punctuated equilibria theory reflects the history of life as seen in the fossil record more accurately than does Charles Darwin's notion of gradual, imperceptible change over time. If Gould's reputation could not be tainted through a connection with a left-wing ideology, then he could be shown to be antagonistic toward the very science he was ostensibly defending.

Boy, did they ever get a surprise! The ACLU lawyer had led Gould through the paleontological case for evolution as well as through Gould's own social and scientific beliefs. With authority and wit—in the courtroom, a good joke can be worth ten serious arguments—Gould explained his point of view, anticipating and defusing possible assaults.

Those who think a scientist's social views must shape his finished science, Gould argued, confuse the context of a discovery with its validity. And, he went on, those who think that a jerky fossil record throws any doubt on the truth of evolution are confusing the fact of evolution with the putative means or mechanisms. So authoritative was Gould that when the Arkansas attorney general stood up to cross-examine, he asked only a few perfunctory questions and then sat down. Rather than allowing himself to be drawn into discussing "gaps in the fossil record," Steve Gould himself became something of a gap in the prosecutor's argument that Darwinian evolution was "just another theory."

By the evening of the third day of the trial, it was clear that the ACLU's case was going well; the state's defense team was on the run. A large group of us—lawyers, witnesses, hangers-on—ate at a restaurant to celebrate, and the wine began to flow. Someone, an angelic junior clerk, began to sing "Amazing Grace." The rest joined in, at first ironically and then, stirred by the melody, sentimentally enthusiastic. No voice was louder and clearer than Gould's. But then, no voice is ever clearer or more distinctive than Stephen Jay Gould's, which is why he enriches the lives of us all.

OLIVER SACKS, M.D.
Author of An Anthropologist on Mars


My introduction to Stephen Jay Gould's work came in the 1970s, when I avidly read all his articles in Natural History (as I still do today). In 1990, when I was asked by a London newspaper to name my favorite book, I selected Wonderful Life; this led to my receiving a letter from Stephen and to the beginning of a frequent and voluminous correspondence between us.

Many subjects close to both our hearts have been discussed in letters: from the place of contingency (in evolution but also in the often unpredictable reactions of patients to illnesses and drugs) to our shared love for museums (especially the old "cabinet" type—we both spoke out for the preservation of the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia).

In 1993 I wrote of ways of joining particulars with generalities—in my own case, clinical narratives with neuroscience—and he replied: "I have long experienced exactly the same tension, trying to assuage my delight in individual things through my essays and my interest in generality through my more technical writing. I loved the Burgess Shale work so much because it allowed me to integrate the two."

I often wrote excited letters to Stephen the moment I had read his columns: in 1995, about his article on Sacculina, a meditation on whether such a life-form could be called degen–

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erate; and in 1996, about some just-published research of his on microevolutionary processes and hybridization effects. I was especially fascinated by his 1998 article on Buffon's trajectory from his early Platonic thinking to a historical viewpoint—partly because of a similar evolution in my own thinking.

“In one of those delicious coincidences that Gould so often notes in his essays, S.J. Gould and J.S. Bach are linked by a postal code.”


Stephen is now a good friend as well as a colleague—we dine together, walk the streets together (only someone as intensely sensitive to architecture as he is would introduce spandrels as an evolutionary metaphor), celebrate birthdays together (when Stephen often exercises his talent for composing verses on the spot), go to museums and botanical gardens together. He is an enchanting companion as well as a major intellectual force, and both aspects of him come together in his unique essays.

GEERAT J. VERMEIJ
Professor of Geology, University of California, Davis


When I reflect on the nearly 300 essays that Gould has published in Natural History—more than most of us will write in a lifetime, yet representing only a portion of his prodigious output—I am struck by the parallels with another great creator, writing 250 years earlier for an audience in a pre-Darwinian culture. Just as Gould harnesses enormous knowledge and elegant prose to enhance the insights and discoveries stemming from the evolutionary perspective, Johann Sebastian Bach applied his melodic and contrapuntal gifts, together with his grasp of the capacities of voices and instruments, to elicit deep contemplativeness and emotion in his listeners. In addition to secular works, Bach composed almost 300 cantatas and other sacred pieces. Once a month at Weimar, and perhaps once weekly at Leipzig, he had yet another piece ready to be performed at the Sunday service. As does Gould, he understood that a message—a religious sermon, in Bach's circumstances—becomes more powerful when it is delivered as art.

But there is more to the connection between these two men than the nature of their art and the scope of their production. In one of those delicious coincidences that Gould so often notes in his essays, Gould and Bach are linked by a postal code. When the U.S. Postal Service assigned zip codes to every locality in the country in the early 1960s, it bestowed 02138 on Cambridge, Massachusetts. Now, it so happens that the Braille symbols for the numbers 1–10 and for the letters a–j are the same: 1 is a, 2 is b, and so forth to 0, which is j. A literal reading of Gould's Harvard zip code in Braille, therefore, becomes "jbach."

May the parallels continue. Steve, although I can't predict what will spring from the keys of your manual typewriter as you write late into the night, I trust you to keep alive your passion for fact and thought. Let there be more—why not?—Gouldberg variations.

RICHARD MILNER
Senior Editor, Natural History


I first met Stephen Jay Gould in the sixth grade in Queens, New York, when we were the only two geeks in the school interested in natural history and particularly in dinosaurs—decades before the advent of worldwide dinomania. In junior high school, our schoolmates nicknamed me "Dino" and Gould "Fossilface." We spent many afternoons at the American Museum of Natural History, where such curators as Edwin Colbert and Norman Newell fanned the flames of our hobby.

We lost touch for twenty-five years, and I was delighted one day to discover Steve's columns in Natural History. At the time, both my life and my career had wandered far away from natural history, and I was working as an editor of what used to be called pulp magazines. I wrote to him, "You have inherited Thomas Huxley's mantle in explaining evolution to a new generation," and I asked if he remembered me. He wrote back, "Blood may be thicker than water, but junior high school friendships are thicker than anything."

Steve encouraged me to return to the fold and take up my boyhood interests once

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again. But where to begin, with no credentials and no umbrella institution? He urged me to pursue the history of science as an independent scholar, to make a pilgrimage to Darwin's home in England, and to buy antiquarian natural history books in the shops around the British Museum. He gave me letters of introduction to top scholars. Eventually he encouraged me to write my Encyclopedia of Evolution, to which he generously contributed a foreword. Soon after it was published, in 1990, I was hired by Natural History, and among my duties is seeing "This View of Life" through to press each month (one does not really edit Stephen Jay Gould). My reconnection with the man, and with the passions and ideas that we both enjoy, has transformed my life immeasurably for the better. Thanks, Fossilface!

GARY LARSON
Cartoonist-author of "The Far Side"


If I hadn't stumbled into my cartooning career (and "stumbled" is the only word to use here—on Career Day in high school, you don't walk around looking for the cartoon guy), I know what my other fantasy job would be: Stephen Gould's hunchbacked assistant.

There I'd be, wearing a white lab coat (I suspect he doesn't wear one, but I would require it for myself), an enormous hump (if you're going to have a hump, don't screw around) protruding from between my shoulder blades. And there's Dr. Gould, my paleontologist hero, hunkered down over some fossils, taking some measurements, making some notes. "Larson," he says calmly, not taking his eyes off his work, "fetch me the Homo habilis skull." I enter some dingy storage room and quickly return, handing him a yellowed cranium. He looks at it. His eyes narrow. "What the... ? This is robustus!" he screams. "Habilis! Habilis, you fool!"

Yes, it's another day in which I've angered him in some way. But it doesn't matter. After all, I'm Stephen Gould's assistant. I'm at the side of one of the most remarkable scientists of our time, a man whose writings have always enhanced my own awe and appreciation for nature and for that wonderful crapshoot of change, evolution.

And if he fires me, I always have that cartooning thing to fall back on.

“During a brutal regimen of chemotherapy, Steve insisted I come and work with him on a theoretical paper. He was not about to retreat from his life or admit defeat.”


ELISABETH VRBA
Professor of Paleontology, Yale University


In 1981, during the worst phase of Steve's battle with cancer, he invited me to his home to kick around some evolutionary ideas and perhaps to find a topic on which we could write together. My first reaction was that this was surely not a suitable time for him to have a visitor; most of his colleagues were staying away. His doctors had given him the slenderest hope of survival, and he was undergoing a brutal regimen of chemotherapy. But Steve insisted that I come to stay and work with him. He was not about to retreat from his life or admit defeat.

We thought, argued, and made notes almost continuously for two days, during which he hardly ate or slept. In the midst of our theoretical discussions, he frequently rushed to the bathroom to be violently ill. And each time he came right back to pick up once more the threads of connection between seemingly disparate biological processes and phenomena from linguistics, philosophy, and history. I found myself forgetting how gravely ill he was, and simply felt, as always, the sheer delight of exploring conceptual issues with him.

By the end of the two days, we had roughed out our paper, "Exaptation—a missing term in the science of form," which was to precipitate a great deal of discussion and debate among scientists. I will never cease to be inspired by the person I saw during those very troubled days, with his undiminished deep love of the intellectual endeavor and an indomitable will to keep working, no matter what. Steve has helped to make paleontology the popular and vibrant science it is today, a profession that attracts students and is respected by the public—clearly an advance over the days when young Steve's relatives asked him incredulously, "Paleontology…that's a profession for a Jewish boy?"  

  [ Natural History 108 (Nov. 1999): 48-57. ]  


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