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A wonderful life by leaps and bounds

Nature volume 456, pages 873874 (18 December 2008) | Download Citation

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Stephen Jay Gould's idea of evolution by bursts was controversial. But it gave the field of palaeontology a long-overdue boost, explains Steve Jones.

Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on His View of Life

Edited by Warren D. Allmon, Patricia H. Kelley & Robert M. Ross

Oxford University Press: 2009. 416 pp. £18.99, $34.95 01953732009780195373202

Stephen Jay Gould was one of the world's top six snail geneticists, and the other five of us agreed. Unlike his colleagues — and in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and his 1839 work The Conchologist's First Book: Or, a System of Testaceous Malacology — he followed the iron rule that nobody who works on snails becomes famous until they give it up. His elegant studies on shell shape in Bermudan land molluscs were succeeded by a series of popular books and essays, some of great brilliance, and, again in the footsteps of Poe, by a set of sonorous but increasingly Delphic statements on the revealed truths of life, the Universe and such things.

Gould's accessible books were key in sparking popular interest in evolutionary history. Image: U. ANDERSEN/GETTY IMAGES

Reflections is a Festschrift of sorts. But among the praise, there is no shortage of negative comment on the hero's work or polemic about just what he was trying to say. A dozen or more of Gould's ex-students and colleagues assess his science, standing and personality, six years after his untimely death. He emerges as a genius of sorts, but — appropriately for his geologist beginnings — with feet not unmarked by clay.

Much of Gould's oeuvre descends from Charles Darwin's dictum that “general and popular Treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as original work”. Gould was central to today's awakening of public interest in the past. He was also an invaluable ally in the fight against creationism, and spared no effort in opposing the endless attempts to insinuate stupidity into US schools. His influence did not, alas, quite make it across the Atlantic.

Some of his imagery may have creaked a little. Yet only Gould could incorporate a picture of himself pushing a luggage trolley labelled Metaphoros in a Greek airport to make the point that a metaphor is no more than a means of moving an idea from one place to another. His baseball obsession threatened to become boring — but then his 1996 book Full House revealed an unexpected parallel between that baffling sport and life itself. Fans complained that the game was stagnant because batting averages had levelled off, but Gould noticed the equivalent decline in their variance, proof that the game had become leaner and meaner as its players pushed the limits of the physically possible. (Cricket, incidentally, shows no such pattern.) From that he wove a tale that incorporated the history of skyscrapers, his chances of surviving the cancer that darkened his later years, and the whole notion of progress in evolution.

Gould held fast to Darwin's maxim that “All observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service”, and was among that band who felt that those not for him must be against him — which was not much help in keeping friends. The great biologist John Maynard Smith wrote that most evolutionists saw Gould as “a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because at least he is on our side against the creationists”.

Gould was hurt by that acidulous statement, which was without doubt unfair. Whatever the importance of sudden leaps in the fossil record, his notorious idea of punctuated equilibria, nicknamed 'punk eek' and referred to as 'evolution by jerks' by some of its critics — their own views characterized by Gould as “evolution by creeps” — gave the fossilized field of palaeontology a much-needed kick in the pants. Gould saw punk eek as a “coordinating centrepiece” that “congealed into a coherent critique” of evolutionary theory. Many biologists, by contrast, insist that what look like palaeontological leaps can be explained by simple Darwinism. To them, an instant in geology may represent almost an infinity in biology, leaving plenty of time for evolution by natural selection to do its normal job. His other great passion, contingency — the notion that evolution goes on with sudden bangs rather than protracted whimpers — has also not held up particularly well. Wonderful Life, Gould's 1989 book on the Burgess Shale, suggests that the obscure fauna of the late pre-Cambrian represents a lost universe wiped out by some unknown disaster, but now we know that they have descendants among modern animals. Even so, scientific ideas often change, and that volume, like most of his others, remains a rattling good read. The fact that nature must build on what it has, and not on what it wants, is still at the centre of evolutionary thinking.

Gould remained a dedicated teacher, which few great researchers can claim, but lost his gloss with the years. The teaching fellows on his course at Harvard University recount in the book how praise mutated into complaints about pomposity and intolerance; and I myself attended several lectures that were hard to follow, went grossly over time and were interspersed with rants about flash photography.

In time Gould was promoted from mere scientist to Thinker, and corresponded with President Jimmy Carter about God. As one ex-student reports, some of his colleagues felt that Gould became a caricature of himself. Backwards ran his sentences, and some of his ideas were equally opaque. In support of punk eek, for example, he wrote that “species are individuals ... by all vernacular criteria”, which is at best obscure, and at worst obscurantist.

As Reflections portrays, its hero showed an increasing regard for style over content, and was resistant to the notion that anyone should dare to edit his writings. The pinnacle — the very summit, crown and peak — of his great Olympus of orotundity was his last voluminous volume, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, published in the year of his death. All the authors agree that this is not a book to be lightly tossed aside, but their motives for saying so vary. Its reviews are quoted with a certain relish: “an elephantine opus”; “pathological logorrhea”; “billowing clouds of verbal flatulence” — but Gould had no doubt of its value. In it he came out with the idea of life as a series of interlocking hierarchies and of a grand unification of its sciences into some post-Darwinian consilience, comprehensible only to the chosen.

Poe was much the same. His last substantial work, Eureka: A Prose Poem, published just before his own demise, discusses the relationship of man to God, and to “the Material and Spiritual Universe: of its Essence, its Origin, its Creation, its Present Condition and its Destiny”. It was seen by Poe as replacing Newton's ideas about gravity. Poe wrote that “What I have propounded will (in good time) revolutionize the world of Physical and Metaphysical science”. Some see in it a presage of the Big Bang and of modern astronomy, but others ridicule its pretensions, its rambling nature and its overblown prose. Nine decades later, Albert Einstein described Eureka as a “beautiful achievement of an unusually independent mind”. Perhaps, one day, the same will be said of Gould.

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  1. Steve Jones is professor of genetics at University College London, London WC1E 6BT, UK. His most recent book is Coral: A Pessimist in Paradise.  j.s.jones@ucl.ac.uk

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https://doi.org/10.1038/456873a

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