This View of Science: Stephen Jay Gould as Historian of Science and Scientific Historian

Article excerpt

IN THE CLOSING DECADES OF THE twentieth century the genre of popular science writing by professional scientists blossomed as never before, with sales figures to match the astronomical six- and seven-figure advances being sought and secured by literary agents, and paid, however begrudgingly, by major trade publishing houses. This "third culture," as author and agent John Brockman has called it, bypasses the alleged abyss between C.P. Snow's two cultures by generating a new readership and intelligentsia interested in the profound implications for society and culture of scientific discoveries. (1) In the 1960s the mathematician Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, based on his popular PBS documentary series of the same name, earned the previously unknown scientist a measure of fame late in his life. In the l970s the astronomer Robert Jastrow's God and the Astronomers landed him in the chair next to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, but he was soon displaced by astronomer Carl Sagan, who took the genre to new he ights when he broke all records for the largest advance ever given for a first time novel ($2 million dollars for Contact). His book Cosmos, based on the PBS series watched by half a billion people in sixty nations, stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for over a hundred weeks and sold more copies during this time than any English-language science book ever published. (2) So famous did he become that a "Sagan effect" took hold in science, whereby one's popularity and celebrity with the general public was thought to be inversely proportional to the quantity and quality of real science being done. (3) Sagan's biographers have stated unequivocally, based on numerous interviews with insiders, that Harvard's refusal of Sagan's bid for tenure, and the National Academy of Science's rejection of the nomination of Sagan for membership, was a direct result of this "Sagan effect." (4) But even Sagan's popularity and book sales were exceeded in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the mathematical physicist and cosm ologist Stephen Hawking, whose book A Brief History of Time set new sales standards (and expectations by publishers) for science books to come, with a record 200 weeks on The Sunday Times' hardback bestseller list, and over ten million copies sold worldwide. (5)

Stephen Jay Gould was a highly successful product and producer of this salubrious arrangement among scientists, agents, publishers, and readers. With the exception of his first book--based on his dissertation (Ontogeny and Phylogeny)--and his last book that is a technical synthesis of his life's work (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory), the twenty books in between were all composed in this "third culture" genre that Gould himself helped to create--popular science books also written for one's colleagues. Of those twenty, ten are collections of his essays, mostly from Natural History magazine. Of the remaining ten, three are co-authored with photographer Rosamond Purcell as a blend of artistic photography and descriptive commentary on natural history, one is an edited volume on the history of life, one is a skeptical critique of race and intelligence, one is on the millennium, one is on the relationship of science and religion and the other three are on various aspects of evolutionary and geological theory. (6)

With this volume of writing came corresponding awards and accolades, including a National Magazine Award for his column "This View of Life," several national book awards, dozens of honorary degrees, fellowships, and awards for achievements and service. He was even called "America's evolutionist laureate." (7) Along with the recognition, of course, came the requisite criticisms--big targets are easy to hit--and Gould had his fill over the years. In 1986 Harvard biologist Bernard Davis devoted three essays in a collected volume to critiquing Gould's anti-hereditarian views, accusing him of a type of Lysenkoism, "an effort to outlaw a field of science because it conflicts with a political dogma," and of "sacrificing scientific integrity to hyperbole for political purposes. …