The Apotheosis of Stephen Jay Gould. (Notebook)

By Gross, Paul R. | New Criterion, October 2002 | Go to article overview

The Apotheosis of Stephen Jay Gould. (Notebook)

Gross, Paul R., New Criterion

When, in May of 2002, Stephen Jay Gould died at age sixty, a torrent of eulogy issued from the presses. Gould was a paleontologist and a writer of popular science. Some readers who were neither consumers of popular science nor adepts of left politics were puzzled. Yes, his death was untimely; and he was a public figure. But so are other professors who are regularly in the public prints. Gould was not a politician, not a film star, not, despite his well-advertised baseball know-how, a sports figure. Biologists don't usually qualify for the industrial-strength obituary product. Somehow, this one, neither an Einstein nor a Ted Williams nor a lawmaker, did.

On the quality, of Gould's thought, opinion among his peers was divided, negative predominant, John Maynard Smith, a principal among leading evolutionists, said famously that "Because of the excellence of his essays, he [Gould] has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with." Although the public, at least in the United States, did see him as the top-gun evolutionist, the revisionist and rectifier of Darwinism, he was nothing of the sort.

An account of Stephen Gould's apotheosis must address two issues. First is the set of scientific ideas with which his name is associated (in no small measure via tireless self-advertising), and their reception among his scientific--not journalistic--peers. The second is Gould's politics, and its intertwining with his flavored scientific themes, especially in popular exposition. Exposition there was! Spectacularly productive of words on paper, Gould's energy and elan as a writer, his historical erudition--always on display--were the envy of competitors, academic and journalistic. He was his own celebrant in the 300 monthly columns he wrote for Natural History. Repeatedly, book-length collections of them became best-sellers. Breathlessly, Phil Gasper, the eulogist in (appropriately) International Socialist Review, reports: "By the 1990s, Gould was a household name. In 1997, he made an animated guest appearance on "The Simpsons," and last year the Library of Congress named him one of America's eighty-three "living legends."

Here then is a synecdoche (a part standing for the whole: Gould loved to name this figure). This one stands for the reception of his science among investigators competent to judge it. It is an essay in Human Nature Review, by the evolutionary psychologist David Barash, on Gould's 2002 swan-song, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (TSET), 1433 pages. Barash explains: "The problem is that although I admired much in Gould's work--especially his persistence and panache--and agreed with his politics, I disputed, consistently, his science [emphasis added]." Himself a skilled science writer, Barash cannot ignore the narcissism of TSET: "Such billowing clouds of verbal flatulence herald a new phenomenon--the literate bioterrorist--or maybe a biologically literate deconstructionist, more interested in generating complex clauses than in communicating anything." And, "It stands as a monument to good, professional editing ... which it didn't receive. Gould--who famously refused to allow any modification of his unique prose--got his way at the end, and his book is the worse for it."

Barash's comments on Gould's scientific claims are not at all idiosyncratic, at least among evolutionary biologists:

   But what is TSET about? It is not about the structure of evolutionary 
   theory.... It presents, instead, the structure of Stephen Jay Gould's 
   evolutionary theory, which is a very different creature. Or species. Or 
   more accurately, in the phrase once coined by maverick geneticist Richard 
   Goldschmidt ... a "hopeful monster." [emphasis in the original] 
   Gould proclaims his monstrous book to be part of a Hegelian dialectic, in 
   which traditional Darwinism (the Modern Synthesis) has become the thesis, 
   with Gould's own ideas as antithesis, and a future synthesis waiting to be 

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