Stephen Jay Gould

By Nichols, John | The Nation, June 17, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Stephen Jay Gould


Nichols, John, The Nation


When the Kansas Board of Education voted in 1999 to remove the teaching of evolution from the state's science curriculum, most thinking Americans groaned about the growing influence of the antirational religious right. But Stephen Jay Gould, the nation's most prominent evolutionary biologist, refused to write off Kansas--or reason. He hopped a plane for the Midwest and delivered a series of speeches in which he declared, "To teach biology without evolution is like teaching English without grammar."

With its decision, Gould argued, "the board transported its jurisdiction to a never-never land where a Dorothy of the new millennium might exclaim, 'They still call it Kansas, but I don't think we're in the real world anymore.'" The reference to The Wizard of Oz took Gould from behind the lectern and into the thick of the public debate. That was where Gould, who died May 20 at age 60, was at his best. A paleontologist who studied the land snails of Bermuda, and a historian of science whose last book was a 1,400-page dissection of Darwinism and the evolution of evolutionary theory, the Harvard professor was secure in his academic place. But he believed that scientists also had a place in the popular discourse of the day.

Science for the People was the name Gould, Richard Lewontin and their allies gave to the magazine and the movement they forged in a post-1960s burst of optimism about the prospects of linking scientific insights and social activism. With his unique talent for explaining complex ideas through eminently comprehensible references to baseball, choral music and the shrinking size of Hershey's chocolate bars, Gould took on the yahoos who attempted to use pseudoscience to justify race, class and gender discrimination.

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