Look Who's Stalking
The ugly feud between pop paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and science
Wright has been simmering for ten years nowexcept
somebody forgot to tell Gould.
by Ethan Smith
a 25-year career as a successful public intellectual, Stephen Jay Gould has accrued
nearly all the trappings of celebrity: a new loft in SoHo, tenure at Harvard, a
gig at NYU, book sales totaling in the millions (his twentieth title, The Lying
Stones of Marrakech, comes out next month), not to mention a schedule that takes
him to London, Paris, or L.A. almost weekly. Not bad for a college professor. But
recently, he's picked up one of the less desirable accoutrements of fame. The
graying, 58-year-old Queens native has become the first paleontologist in history
with his own stalkeralbeit an intellectual one.
Last December, The New Yorker printed a 5,000-word essay,
"The Accidental Creationist,"
with the subtitle "Why Stephen Jay Gould Is Bad for Evolution." The writer, Robert
Wright, openly mocked Gould's credibility as a scientist and spokesman for evolution.
In fact, Wright, a well-connected D.C. journalist, called his subject an unwitting
accomplice in the fundamentalist crusade against science. The piece accused Gould of
the ultimate heresy among evolutionists: offering succor to religious zealots who
want to remove Darwin from the schools. It was a foolish and outrageous claim, and
even Gould's enemies were taken aback.
Unrepentant, Wright quickly lobbed another grenade at Gould. His
new book, Nonzero: The Logic of
Human Destiny, published last month, devotes 30 pages to a
no-holds-barred attack on Gould. Even the footnotes contain digs, accusing Gould
of "evasion," of inappropriately carrying out "a psychoanalysis of Darwin," and of
If readers are confused by Wright's single-minded furyafter
all, his attacks seem largely unprovoked, and Gould's theories about evolution are
really tangential to Wright's central thesis that human intelligence is on the verge
of melding into "one great global mind"Gould, too, is utterly nonplussed.
Relaxing on a leather couch in his new office at NYU (he's taken up half-time
work there as a visiting researcher in the biology department), he appears
genuinely baffled by this sudden onslaught. Hooking his thumbs nervously into the
belt loops of his khakis, he wails, "I've never even met Robert Wright!"
This isn't the first time Gould has heard Wright's footsteps
behind him. "It's like a classic Western," observes Richard Milner, Gould's editor
at Natural History and the author of the Encyclopedia of Evolution.
"Gregory Peck is the veteran gunfighter, and some young punk comes into town
wanting to take him on. Peck does everything he possibly can to avoid shooting the
poor kid, but eventually he's goaded and prodded and bugged into doing something
It all started in 1990, when Wright reviewed Gould's eleventh
book, Wonderful Life,
in The New Republic, where Wright was then a senior editor. Wright
pointedly accused Gould of intellectual dishonesty, "putting words in Darwin's mouth,"
and tailoring his own scientific views to fit his socialist politics: Punctuated
equilibriumGould's famous reinterpretation of Darwinist theory as a series of
violent fits and starts, not a gradual processwas wrongheadedly informed by a
"Marxist" view of human history. Besides being veiled communist agitprop, Gould's
underlying theories weren't even new, according to Wright.
Looking back, even Wright wonders if he went too far. "My
original review of his book, I have to admit, was very hard-hitting," he told me
by phone from Washington. "And I'm sure he perceived it that way." But Gould
doesn't remember it that way. In fact, he doesn't remember it at all. "I
never even read that review," he maintains. "Or if I did, I didn't
particularly remember the name of the writerit was someone I'd never heard
Indeed, the underlying gist of Wright's critique was hardly
originalin fact, this view of Gould's work had long existed within the
self-contained world of evolutionary biology. Scientists like John Maynard Smith
and Richard Dawkins had raised the
same issues before. (UC Berkeley biologist Kevin Padian attributes the criticism
to "academic penis envy.") But it was Wright's vehemence, along with his lack of
scientific credentials, that was so striking. And he was just getting started.
Wright was trying to goad and prod Gould into respondingand
at the same time get himself accepted as one of the big boys. He had good reason to
try to establish himself as a legitimate player in the ongoing debate among real
evolutionists: He was already laying the groundwork for The Moral Animal,
his 1994 book about evolutionary psychology (the contested field that seeks to
explain all human behavior in strictly Darwinian terms), and a public reply from
Gould would have done wonders for his credibility. But he was disappointed. "Gould,
alas, paid me no mind," he complained in a 1996 Slate
column describing, in the
language of evolutionary psychology, the men's (thus far one-sided) "feud": "Savvy
alpha male that [Gould] is, he refrained from getting into a gutter brawl with a
scrawny, marginal primate such as myself."
Finally, though, in the fall of 1996six years after the
New Republic reviewthe goading apparently got to Gould. "Last month,"
Wright crowed in the same Slate column, "Gould's long-repressed contempt
burst forth from the reptilian core of his brain and leapt over the fire walls
in his frontal lobes." Well, sort of. Eight pages into a Natural History
column on Martin Luther, in a half-sentence parenthetical, Gould called The
Moral Animal "the most noted and most absurd example" of evolutionary
That was it. That was the answer Wright had been waiting
for all these years. Not surprisingly, he treated Gould's seven-word indifferent
response as a more dastardly blow than a full frontal assault. "He has this obsession
with Gould," concedes Slate editor-in-chief Michael Kinsley, a friend of
Wright's. "But we like obsessions." Incredibly, even Kinsley sees the paleontologist's
casual slight as a sign that Gould himself has been the aggressor all along. "Gould's
position is 'I'm much too important to dignify this whoever-he-is,'" he says. "I
think that's not an admirable stance to take, because even people who disagree with
Wright would agree that he's an extremely smart, original, and important thinker.
So it's bullying, really, on Gould's part."
This winter, after a brief silence, Wright has come back into
Gould's life with a vengeance. To coincide with the publication of Nonzero,
Wright has orchestrated a flurry of bylined pieces in The New Republic,
Time, and the New York Times. But it was his The New Yorker
article that drew blood. "Other people have attacked me before," Gould says. "But
this was different. I've read The New Yorker my whole life; I consider it
a friend. And this did feel, emotionally, like a betrayal by a friend."
If Wright's editors there, Dorothy Wickenden and editor-in-chief
David Remnick, knew Wright was using their pages to promote Nonzero and
reignite his dormant feud, they aren't saying. Neither responded to multiple phone
calls and e-mails about the article. But others have complained. "I read the
article," says Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin, a longtime ally of
Gould's. "I thought it was dumb." Other evolutionists, even those who've been
critical of Gould in the past, expressed shock at what they saw as Wright's
disingenuousness. "No one has explained evolution to the public better than Gould,"
says Berkeley's Padian. "It strikes me as really tragic that The New Yorker,
of all publications, would devote that much space to character assassination."
For his part, Wright still insists he's the aggrieved party.
"The motivation at Gould's end is very much
political," he says, referring to accusations that evolutionary psychology is just
social Darwinism in disguise. "And you know, one could argue that I have my own
political agendabut it definitely isn't the agenda Gould is reflexively
attributing to me." Which is? "Which is that I want poor people to starve!"
Gould can take comfort in the fact that even some of Wright's
allies are wincing at the New Yorker attack and Nonzero's wackier
claimsamong them the imminent emergence of a global "superbrain," facilitated
by the Internet and global media, as the next step in cultural and biological
evolution. This is Wright's version of the famously amorphous "noosphere," or
"thinking envelope of the earth," posited by mid-twentieth-century Jesuit mystic
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
"Teilhard is generally regarded as a hopeless romantic, deeply
wrong, and sort of a pathetic figure," says Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett, who
has sided with Wright against Gould in the past. "Anyone trying to resurrect him
is swimming upstream, no question."
Gould, meanwhile, doesn't feel like the winner. "I
still can't understand why The New Yorker ran that article," he says. And
though he's been asked to review Wright's book, so far he has declined
[ Ethan Smith, "Look Who's Stalking," from
Magazine, February 14, 2000. ]
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