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Stephen Jay Gould dies

Public face of evolution dies of cancer aged 60.

Stephen Jay Gould: 1941 - 2002. Credit: © J.Chase

Stephen Jay Gould, one of the world's most famous evolutionary biologists, died of cancer yesterday aged 60. Gould's accessible and entertaining writing made him the public face of evolution, while his provocative ideas stirred up academic debate.

Gould's powers as a popularizer made him famous beyond science. In 1982 he appeared on the cover of Newsweek. And in 1997 he attained the ultimate mark of contemporary celebrity - a cameo on The Simpsons.

Gould authored more than 20 books. Nine are collections of essays, culled from the monthly column in Natural History magazine that he wrote for 25 years.

These essays centered on evolution, but often used examples from art, history and baseball - a lifelong passion. His longer works include the award-winning Wonderful Life, on the fossils of the Burgess Shale, and The Mismeasure of Man, a critique of intelligence testing.

The panda's thumb

Born in New York City in 1941, Gould did his PhD in palaeontology there, at Columbia University. In 1967 he moved to Harvard University, where he stayed for the rest of his life. His core research was on fossil land snails in the Caribbean.

Gould was a great believer in evolution's unpredictability. If the tape of life were rewound and played again, he wrote, a quite different set of organisms would probably succeed.

He criticized the belief that evolution comes up with the best, or only, solution to a biological problem. He emphasized evolution's tendency to cobble together from available materials, or to put something that evolved for one purpose to a different use.

He was great fun - evolutionary biology will be less interesting without him Paul Harvey, , University of Oxford

One of his books was named after a favourite example, the panda's thumb. This formed from the bones of the hand to help the bear eat bamboo, but is much less mobile than the true primate thumb.

Gould's philosophy put him at odds with many fellow biologists. "The word I'd use is exasperating," says Paul Harvey of the University of Oxford. "Every time you came up with a good general rule, Steve loved to take it apart with little anecdotes.

"At the same time, he was great fun. He wouldn't let us be self-satisfied - evolutionary biology will be less interesting without him," says Harvey.

Punctuated equilibrium

Gould's best-known contribution to evolutionary theory is called punctuated equilibrium. This states that most evolution occurs in short bursts, interspersed with long periods of stasis. Gould published the theory in 1972 with palaeontologist Niles Eldredge, now at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Gould and Eldredge attacked the idea that organisms continually change, adapting by small degrees to fit their environment. The fossil record, they pointed out, shows that most species change little after their first appearance. New species appear in large numbers over short periods, perhaps because of dramatic events such as asteroid impacts.

Gould winning a National Science Foundation award in 1999 for his writing.

The theory sparked a long-running debate and much research. Most biologists now believe that the true pace of evolutionary change is probably somewhere between gradual and jerky.

Gould's final large book, published earlier this year, sums up his life's work and his view of evolution. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is nearly 1,500 pages long, and was more than 20 years in the making.

At the age of 40, Gould was diagnosed with abdominal mesothelioma, a rare and incurable cancer that is usually associated with exposure to asbestos. He wrote about the disease, undertook experimental treatments, and campaigned for the medical use of marijuana.

Gould is survived by his second wife and two children from his first marriage.


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Interview with Stephen Jay Gould

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Whitfield, J. Stephen Jay Gould dies. Nature (2002).

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