Unofficial SJG Archive

The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive

Unofficial SJG Archive

Look Who's Stalking

The ugly feud between pop paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and science writer Robert
Wright has been simmering for ten years now—except somebody forgot to tell Gould.

by Ethan Smith

n 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 stalker—albeit 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 "flagrant illogic."

If readers are confused by Wright's single-minded fury—after 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 about him."

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 equilibrium—Gould's famous reinterpretation of Darwinist theory as a series of violent fits and starts, not a gradual process—was 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 writer—it was someone I'd never heard of before."

Indeed, the underlying gist of Wright's critique was hardly original—in 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 responding—and 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 1996—six years after the New Republic review—the 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 psychology.

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 agenda—but 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 claims—among 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 the invitation.

[ Ethan Smith, "Look Who's Stalking," from New York Magazine, February 14, 2000. ]

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