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Stephen Jay Gould: Was it Survival of the Luckiest?

by Curt Schleier

Stephen Jay Gould

he asteroid was about 6.2 miles in diameter, and its impact when it struck the earth was enough to create a hole 100 miles wide. The power of the collision—which took place about 65 million years ago—was so great it pulverized the asteroid, in the process raising a dust cloud sufficiently large to blot out the sun for years: no photosynthesis. No plants. Soon, nearly all life was wiped out.

Welcome to the world of Stephen Jay Gould, the nation's best-known paleontologist. As a paleontologist, Gould studies the geological record—fossils and rock samples—left by cataclysms like this to discover the history of life. For him, time is measured in millennia rather than days, there is only one gigantic continent (called Pangaea), and humans—who've been around for only 100,000 years—are but a tiny blip on the evolutionary timeline.

Gould's office is the academic equivalent of a primordial swamp. There are books everywhere, on shelves that reach so high you need a ladder to get to them. But you can't move the ladder, because it's wedged in among piles of books and magazines so large that the room might be a good place for Navy Seals to do obstacle training. Gould works at a pre-bali IBM electric typewriter. His desk is an old rolltop, the chair collapsing on contact, prompting him to bring in a sturdier replacement.

A professor at Harvard University, Gould is curator for invertebrate paleontology at the school's Museum of Comparative Zoology. In his monthly essays for Natural History magazine and in his many books, most recently Questioning the Millennium, he has shown a keen mind, and—more unusual in the world of science, where writing is typically jargon-filled gobbledygook—the ability to simplify the complex without talking down to readers.

But Gould is more than just an intellectual; he's a fighter. Fifteen years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare form of abdominal cancer which literature said was incurable. Although the median life expectancy was eight months, Gould decided to treat the disease aggressively. Today he is as cured as one gets after battling cancer.

When not teaching, Gould spends most of his time in New York City. He shares a giant SoHo loft (formerly a doll factory) with his wife, Rhonda Shearer, an artist whose sculptures decorate the well-lit gallery-quality space that greets visitors when they get off the elevator.

A native of Queens, Gould is the son of a court stenographer and a housewife. But from the age of five, Stephen knew he wanted to be a paleontologist after his first visit to the Museum of Natural History, where he saw a model of a giant dinosaur. He does not find his career genesis as remarkable as most visiting journalists seem to, however. Paleontologists usually find their calling early on, he notes, "either because they live in the country and collect fossils or live in the city and visit museums."

At the center of paleontology is Darwinism: the theory that life began with single-celled organisms and eventually evolved into more complex life forms—fish, amphibians, birds, mammals, and humans. Animal species flourished by adapting to local environments, and those that adapted best prospered, a concept known as natural selection or survival of the fittest. As Gould explains, most people see evolution as a pyramid, with humans at the top. But, he maintains, that appealing concept is incorrect:

Biography: You don't believe in using the terms "higher" or "lower" in describing different species. Why is that?

Gould: "Higher" is only relevant to some criteria. There is no absolute [standard against which] you can [measure rank]. If you chose to focus on neurological complexity, I guess we humans are the most complex. But if you choose to focus on biochemical diversity, then bacteria have it all over us. And if you want to focus on range of potential environments, bacteria live inside rocks and places we can never get to. It all depends on your criterion, and most of the criteria by which we judge humans superior are just prejudices based on our desire to honor ourselves. After all, there are about a million named species of animals, of which humans are only one. There are only 4,000 species of mammals. There are almost a million species of insects. We're just not a very prominent group. We've had a very great impact on the planet, but you can't confuse impact with the status of an organism.

Biography: You've written that most people "equate evolution with progress, and define human evolution not simply as change, but as increasing intelligence, increasing height, or some other measure of assumed improvement." But you don't subscribe to that conventional wisdom. Why not?

Gould: Again, we represent just one line of hundreds, of thousands, millions [of creatures] actually. First of all, you can't define "improvement" except with respect to some chosen criterion, which is preselected to validate human importance, such as neurological complexity. But humans are not even by definition the most complex vertebrate. We're neurologically complex: We have more brain power than others. But suppose you started measuring skull-bone complexity, for example. Fishes have it all over us. Or tooth complexity; all sorts of mammals have it over us. It all depends on what criterion you choose. There is no objective criterion whereby you can delineate evolution [moving in any one direction]. So where's the overall march to progress we're supposed to see?

At a Glance
Name: Stephen Jay Gould
Born: September 10, 1941, New York City.
Education: A.B., Antioch College, 1963; Ph.D., Columbia University, 1967.
Personal: Married to artist Rhonda Shearer. Children: Two sons, Jesse and Ethan, from a previous marriage.
Difficulties: Diagnosed in July 1982 with rare form of supposedly incurable cancer, abdominal mesothelioma, which he treated aggressively with chemotherapy and radiation and a positive attitude; seems to have conquered his disease.
Accomplishment: Author of 17 books, including The Panda's Thumb (winner of the American Book Award for Science in 1981); The Mismeasure of Man (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1982); and Wonderful Life (a finalist for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize). His most recent book is Questioning the Millennium (Harmony Books, $19.95). Currently serves as the Alexander Agassiz professor of zoology and professor of geology at Harvard and as curator for invertebrate paleontology at the university's Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Biography: But isn't bigger better, in the sense that the bigger you are, the better able you are to be dominant in a fight for food and mates?

Gould: That is a very prejudicial view based on a bunch of cultural stereotypes about battling males and coy females. It is just as likely that the little guy who can sneak in and around is more successful. I don't think there's any general pattern. Sometimes big has advantages, but that's certainly not a generality. I would say there are many ecological and evolutionary circumstances where small has advantages over big. If it were true even within a species that bigger were usually better, you would have evolutionary trends towards bigger, which is not happening.

Biography: But humans are getting bigger. Doesn't that mean anything?

Gould: No. Insofar as they are getting bigger, it has nothing to do with evolution; it's just nutritional improvement. In fact, there was a paper which argued that humans are a little bit smaller than in various times in the past. Samples show that the average height of CroMagnon man, 40,000-year old Europeans, was about six feet. The average height of most males today is a good deal lower than that.

Biography: I think most people want to believe that there is some order to the universe, that we are the result of some grand master plan. But you feel we're just an accident.

Gould: No more so than any other lineage. The fact that you have a human and a hippopotamus and an oak tree rather than any number of other things you could have had is in every case wildly improbable. If you run the tape again, you'd never get the same outcome because there are too many alternate possibilities.

Biography: Can't you say that humans are a logical outgrowth of evolution, even in hindsight?

Gould: Never. I don't think anyone would have predicted, "Hey, I bet this thing is going to go on two legs and lose its hair and get a big brain." It's just a set of circumstances. Good for us. Glad it happened. We're certainly successful, but by no means predictable. I think even if you go back 100,000 years: You have modern humans as a little population somewhere in Africa and other species in Europe and Asia. What predictability was there even then that the population in Africa would spread out all over' the world, displace the others, and become what we are today? Do I think that there's a master plan? That's not a subject that science can take up at all. It's not anything scientists can get at.

Biography: Do humans have a purpose?

Gould: Again, that's not a [subject of] scientific inquiry. I think it behooves us as ethical beings to define some purpose in our own minds.

Biography: As a scientist, do you ever wonder why something happened in other than a strict scientific sense?

Gould: If I had enough evidence about a particular transition, you might be able to figure out a mechanical why. But there's no overarching cosmic "why" that science can get at. That's not what science does. You're asking me an ethical or spiritual question. I don't think it's a very meaningful one.

Biography: Do you ever ask cosmic questions?

Gould: There's a whole range of important questions that science just isn't constructed to answer. Like ethical questions. Science is an enterprise about discovering the factual nature of the universe and trying to figure out why the facts are set up that way and why they exist that way instead of some other way. There's nothing science as an enterprise can do about telling you what's a good way to live or what's the meaning of life. Of course, one wonders about those things. Those are great questions people have asked through the ages. You have to address them as an ethical being. You have to solve these issues for yourself. You have to decide the moral code by which you're gonna live. Science is not going to get you those answers.

I wouldn't ask science to compose pieces of musical beauty, and I wouldn't ask it to solve moral questions. But I wouldn't ask musicians to tell me how humans evolved, either. I think each discipline has a range of things it can do. Moral inquiries are one thing and factual inquiries are another, and you can't confuse them. As a scientist, I can't ask those kinds of [philosophical] questions, because science doesn't get at them, I can, as a curious human being, ask them. I don't happen to think most of them have answers.

Biography: How have recent scientific advances in such fields as DNA research affected Darwinism?

Gould: They have mostly confirmed it. Forty years ago, you barely knew there was DNA, Now you use it fairly mechanically. That's why we know O.J. Simpson is guilty, even though the jury didn't think so. For example, you can now make evolutionary trees by looking at overall similarities of DNA structure [between two species]. When you do that, it pretty, much confirms what you knew already about evolution. For example, it's not surprising that cows are closely related to sheep and horses are further away and snakes are further away than that. But you can confirm that with a whole different set of data than was available 40 years ago.

Biography: Do you believe in God?

Gould: There are a thousand definitions of God. I don't think there's a fellow sitting in the clouds with a long beard. There are some definitions of God that are so benevolent that I might be willing to entertain the notion. In any case, as Huxley said, since the issue is not subject to proof, the only honorable attitude is agnosticism. You don't know because you can't know.

Biography: Are the words "religious scientist" an oxymoron?

Gould: There are a lot of religious scientists. There are also a lot of atheistic scientists. They're just different subjects. I don't think being a scientist predisposes you particularly one way or the other. Religion to me is a question about ethics.

Biography: The world was one large continent 250 million years ago and then split apart. Looking at a map, it seems obvious that it was all connected at one point. But it seems it took scientists a long time to figure that out. Why?

Gould: In retrospect, I think that's right. South America and Africa really do fit very well together, and that was recognized by some people as soon as we had good maps. The impediment was that nobody could figure out a mechanism that could get continents to move. So even though—and you're quite right-there were good reasons to entertain that hypothesis, until physics and geology could figure out a mechanism that could get big continental blocks to move over the earth's surface, it wasn't going to be a very popular idea.

Biography: Do scientists sometimes not see the forest because of the trees?

Gould: We're human beings. No, I don't know why [anyone thinks scientists have a higher level of common sense than ordinary people]. Scientists have mastered a set of procedures that help them get at proving things once they figure out a good theory, but I don't know that scientists are, on average, more creative than other scholars. Scientists are pretty good at testing, but I don't know if they're any better than anyone else at getting results.

Biography: Is creationism still a threat to the teaching of evolutionary science?

Gould: It's hard to say. I don't think it's powerful enough to have a major impact on American education, thanks to First Amendment protection and successful legal battles. So in that sense the creationists are not going to beat us, but they're pesky. There are a lot of them. They're well funded. In local areas, they can be quite powerful and can have an impact on local school boards and local school districts, which is no problem in liberal constituencies such as New York and Boston. But in a little school district in Arkansas, yeah, it can be a problem.

Biography: Do humans have a future?

Gould: All organisms become extinct. The average life of marine invertebrates is five to ten million years, which is a long time. Humans have been around 100,000 years. The life of a species is a complex historical circumstance. It depends on how climates change, who competes with us. There's no reason why, if we're smart about it, we can't be around for any conceivable future that we care to think about.

Interview conducted by Curt Schleier.

[ Curt Schleier, "Stephen Jay Gould: Was it Survival of the Luckiest?" Biography (March 1998): 253-256. ]

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