Stephen Jay Gould

by Doug Linder (2004)

Five-year-old Stephen Jay Gould visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York with his father, a court stenographer, in 1946.  Gould gazed in amazement at the sight of his first dinosaur, a twenty-foot-high tyrannosaurus.  Gould later recounted, “As we stood in front of the beast, a man sneezed; I gulped and prepared to utter my Sherman Yisrael.  But the great animal stood immobile in all its bony grandeur, and as we left, I announced that I would be a paleontologist when I grew up.” 

True to his word, Gould became a paleontologist—the most widely known paleontologist the world has ever seen.  In his incredibly prolific professional career spanning over thirty years, Gould published twenty popular books and hundreds of articles, most of which developed his critique of current evolutionary theory or explored the “supposed conflict” between science and religion. Through it all, Gould remained creationism’s most determined and effective opponent.

 In academic circles, Gould became most closely identified with his theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” first formulated in 1972.  Punctuated equilibrium holds that evolution occurred primarily in relatively rapid periods of speciation rather than taking place in slow, gradual transformations through the process of natural selection. According to Gould, most species remain largely stable over long periods of time before some cataclysmic event sets rapid change in motion. For example, Gould argued, 65 million years ago, following the impact of the meteor near the Yucatan Peninsula and the resultant death of dinosaurs, the burrowing mammals that survived rapidly evolved and filled vacated ecological niches.  Today, after considerable scrutiny of the fossil record, Gould’s once controversial theory has become the consensus view of paleontologists.

 Gould frequently distinguished between evolution, which he described as “a fact,” and the theory of evolution, which “is a theory.” He described facts as statements about the world “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” The empirical evidence for evolution easily met that high standard, he believed, despite the conceivability that new evidence could arise to raise doubts.  “I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow,” he wrote in 1981, “but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.”

 Gould made three general arguments for evolution.  First, he pointed to the undeniable evidence of evolution within species, such as the breeding that produced dogs as diverse as the toy poodle and the Saint Bernard or the evolving of anti-biotic resistant strains of bacteria.  (Virtually all creationists concede intra-species, or “micro-evolution,” but argue that this fact is scant evidence for evolution from species to species, or what is called “macro-evolution.”) Second, Gould argued from the imperfections that appear in so many species.  “Why,” he asked, “should a rat run, a bat fly, a porpoise swim, and I type this essay with the structures built of the same bones unless we inherited them from a common ancestor?  An engineer, starting from scratch, could design better limbs in each case.”  Finally, Gould found compelling evidence for evolution in the fossil record of transitional species.  While acknowledging the record is incomplete owing to the rarity of fossils, Gould nonetheless pointed to examples of fossils that demonstrated the route from one species to another.  The evidence was especially clear, he thought, in the bones of human ancestors, such as Australopithecus afarensis, with its “apelike palate” and its “human upright stance and larger cranial capacity than any ape of the same body size.” 

 Gould often expressed frustration that creationist critics frequently cited his attempts to refine aspects of Darwin’s theory of natural selection as evidence that scientists seriously questioned the underlying “fact” of evolution, not just its mechanisms.  He accused a “motley collection” of creationists of “willful misquotation” and wrote that they “debase religion even more than they misconstrue science.”

 The enemy, in Gould’s opinion, never has been rank-and-file fundamentalists, but rather fundamentalist leaders.  After traveling to the scene of the Scopes trial in 1981, Gould wrote that science had “nothing to fear from the vast majority of fundamentalists who, like many citizens of Dayton, live by a doctrine that is legitimately indigenous to their area.  Rather, we must combat the few yahoos who exploit the fruits of poor education for ready cash and larger political ends.” 

 Man’s presence on earth, in Gould’s view, is an incredibly improbable event, not the realized vision of an intelligent designer.  Without just the right events wiping out just the right species at just the right times, none of us would be here.  In 1989, Gould wrote: “Wind back the tape of life to the early days of the Burgess Shale; let it play again from an identical starting point, and the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence would grace the replay.”  In evolution, there is no direction, no progression.   Humanity is dethroned from its exalted view of its own importance.

Gould relished spirited debate.  After his battles with Darwinian gradualists, Gould took on evolutionary psychologists who, he claimed, applied the Darwinian evolutionary paradigm far beyond what the evidence would support.  Adaptive theories of evolutionary psychologists cannot be tested, he complained.  “You’re reduced to speculative story-telling about hunter-gatherers on the savannah.” 

 However, the battle that always excited Gould the most was the same one Clarence Darrow fought in Dayton in 1925.  The Scopes trial, according to Gould, was “a rousing defeat” for evolution.  Despite the common perception that the trial exposed Biblical literalism as foolish, Gould insists that defeat came when “cowardly and conservative” textbook writers chose to de-emphasize evolution in post-1925 editions. No improvement in this sorry situation came about, he argued, until the success of the Russian Sputnick in 1957 finally roused Americans to see the dangers of a second-rate science curriculum. 

More than anyone who has ever addressed the subject, Gould attempted to portray creationists as persons out-of-step with established religious traditions.  He argued that a “strong consensus accepted for decades by leading scientific and religious thinkers alike” saw no conflict between evolution and religion.  In his 1999 book, Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, he strenuously contended that science and religion occupied separate non-overlapping domains (or “magisteria,” to use his favored term), and if each stuck to their appropriate missions, no difficulties between the two could ever arise.  Religion and science can, each in their own way, “enrich our practical and ethical lives.”  Just as science is of no help in answering the question of how we ought to live, Gould insisted, religion tells us nothing about the laws of nature.


Gould described himself as “an agnostic.” His understanding of science convinced him that nature “greets us with sublime indifference and no preference for accommodating our yearnings.”  On the subject of a Creator, he seemed to share Darwin’s view:  “There seems to be too much misery in the world.  I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.” 

 Despite his own agnosticism, Gould claimed be “fascinated” by the subject of religion and to have “great respect” for it.  In particular, Gould respected religions that understood “the natural world does not lie” and that readjusted their teaching when an interpretation of Scripture proved inconsistent with “a well-validated scientific result.”  “True science and religion are not in conflict,” Gould stated.  While science attempts to describe the character and operation of the physical world, religion “operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values.”  He wished for nothing more than to see these “two old and cherished institutions…co-existing in peace.” 

 The geological evidence “conclusively disproved” young-earth creationism and other biblical stories such as the Great Flood, in Gould’s opinion.    He chastised religions that insist upon supernatural events.  As he saw it, religions that rely on miracles do so unnecessarily and, in the long run, risk their own credibility. 

 Gould claimed creationism is “nonscientific” and thus has no place in a science classroom.  Those who wish to import creationism into the biology classroom are, in Gould’s view, “zealots…trying to impose their will and nonsense.”  He complained that the central tenets of creationism “cannot be tested, and its peripheral claims, which can be tested, have been proven false.”  To accept creationism, one must assume that laws of nature can be and were suspended—an assumption scientists, if true to their profession, cannot make.  Gould dismissively described creationism as “nothing but a smokescreen, a meaningless and oxymoronic phrase invented as sheep’s clothing for the old wolf of Genesis literalism.” 

 Gould counts among his proudest achievements his part in the legal battle to creationism out of the public schools.  He wrote that it gave him “great joy” to play a role in a fight that had “featured such giant figures as Bryan and Darrow.”  In 1981, the Harvard paleontologist traveled to Arkansas to appear as one of six expert witnesses in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of that state’s new “balanced treatment” law.  The law, backed by fundamentalists, required teachers who covered evolution in their biology classes to also discuss the creationist critique of evolution and the evidence for “intelligent design.”  At the trial, Gould testified creationists distorted both geological evidence and scientific studies on fossil evidence of evolutionary transformation. Several Arkansas teachers also testified.  Gould wrote of one high school teacher, asked what he would do if the law was upheld, “looked up and said, in his calm and dignified voice: It would be my tendency not to comply.  I am not a revolutionary or a martyr, but I have a responsibility to my students, and I cannot forego them.”  Recalling the incident, Gould added a benediction: “God bless the teachers of this world.”

 On the flight out of Little Rock after the trial, a fellow passenger came up to Gould and thanked him for “comin’ on down here and helpin’us out with this little problem.”  The passenger turned out to be Bill Clinton, who declared that he would have vetoed the balance treatment law had he not been defeated in his recent bid for re-election as governor of Arkansas.  The next year, as it happened, Clinton won back his old job and his administration made the decision not to appeal a federal district court decision finding the state’s balanced treatment law to violate the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. 

 Despite his hostility to creationism, Gould took a surprisingly sympathetic view of William Jennings Bryan’s opposition to Darwinism.  Although seeing Bryan as dead wrong on his skepticism about evolution itself, Gould credits the Great Commoner with “identifying a serious problem.”  He noted that Bryan’s crusade against evolution emanated from the same egalitarian impulses as most of the other issues that the longtime Democratic reformer championed.  In the early 1920s, German militarists, laissez faire capitalists, and scientific eugenicists cited Darwin as support for their own questionable policies.  “Survival of the fittest” became a reason to deny economic and medical support to the poor.  Efforts to breed a new superior race of humans captivated thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic.  Textbooks treating the subject of evolution, including the Civic Biology book used by Scopes, misunderstood Darwin’s theory and turned it into an apology for racism and forced sterilization.  Misuse of Darwinism was indeed a major concern in 1925, Gould believed, and Bryan was right to call it to public attention. Over his career, Gould himself made plain that he saw in the work of evolutionary psychologists many of the dangers that Bryan saw in the eugenics research of his time.  He allied himself with a group of “radical scientists” that sought to discredit research showing that intelligence and many behavioral traits show strong genetic components.  Gould’s scientific critics, on the other hand, saw in his attacks on evolutionary psychology the same blind zeal that he attributed to creationist attacks on inter-species.

 Gould died of cancer in 2002 at the age of sixty.  For twenty years he had suffered from abdominal mesothelioma, a rare and serious cancer usually associated with exposure to asbestos. At the time of his diagnosis, the medical literature stated that Gould’s disease was incurable and had a median mortality of only eight months after discovery.  Death finally came to Gould two months after publication of his 1342-page "Magnum Opus", The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.

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