Stephen Jay Gould: Was it Survival of the Luckiest?
by Curt Schleier
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 collisionwhich took place about
65 million years agowas 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 recordfossils
and rock samplesleft 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 humanswho've been around for only 100,000
yearsare 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
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, andmore unusual in the world of science,
where writing is typically jargon-filled gobbledygookthe ability to simplify the
complex without talking down to readers.
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.
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
At the center of paleontology is Darwinism: the theory that life
began with single-celled organisms and eventually evolved into more complex life
formsfish, 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
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
Panda's Thumb (winner of the American Book Award for Science in 1981);
Mismeasure of Man (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1982); and
Life (a finalist for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize). His most recent book is
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
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
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
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
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
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 thoughand 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. ]