Stephen Jay Gould, a world-renowned scientist whose life bridged humanity, science and social involvement, died in May of lung cancer at age 60.

A warmly admired professor of zoology at Harvard, his 300 popularly written columns for Natural History magazine on evolution, geology and paleontology delighted readers with references to art, history, music, the social sciences and sports.

Gould and a colleague, Niles Eldredge, won early fame by challenging one aspect of Charles Darwin’s explanation of evolution – that evolution happens only through small gradual changes. Gradualism, Gould repeatedly stated, is not essential to Darwinism.

Gould and Eldredge proposed instead a theory of “punctuated equilibrium” – that there are long periods of very little or no observable evolutionary changes and then in a relatively brief period, geologically speaking – covering some thousands of years – dramatic changes occur. The punctuated equilibrium proposal stimulated widespread discussion and intensive study, activities which themselves are the test of a good theory. The evidence continues to support their theory.

Gould challenged the concept of infinite gradualism with arguments borrowed from the dialectics of Marx and Engels: small quantitative changes can build up until a very big qualitative change takes place. The example of heating water is often given – its temperature rises but it remains water until suddenly the temperature does not rise but rather the added heat causes the water to boil, exploding into steam.

Other examples pop up. Repeated stretching of the metal enclosing an airliner’s cabin as the plane moves from high air pressure at low altitudes to low pressure at high does not immediately show up, but the fatigued metal may suddenly crack, leading to catastrophic crashes, as happened 50 years ago with the world’s first jetliner, the British Comet. It quickly became extinct!

Gould was charged by some with being anti-Darwin, but this is nonsense to anyone who read his writings. What Gould inserted into Darwin’s theory of evolution by adaptation was the unappreciated – by those who favor the status quo – occasional revolution.

Gould recognized that science, like other social, cultural and historical activities, is profoundly influenced by the prejudices of the time, Darwin’s and ours. Gould also spoke of science as neither inherently good nor evil but rather directed by the overall culture in which it was carried out. Neither his commitment to science nor his prolific academic life, however, limited him to celebrating good or agonizing about evils. He often stepped out of the ivory towers to engage critical social issues.

In the late 1960s, U.S. military planners misappropriated the fruits of science to create Agent Orange, which the Air Force sprayed over the Vietnamese countryside defoliating and killing all the trees. Gould responded by developing Science for the People, an organization and magazine that gave scientists opposed to the Vietnam War and the misuse of their work avenues to apply their scientific expertise for social good.

With sharp analysis and sharper words, Gould repeatedly demolished academics who justify racism. He did this in 1981 with his book The Mismeasure of Man and again during the Newt Gingrich days of the mid 1990s.

When right-winger Charles Murray and Harvard psychology professor Richard Hernstein attempted to prove intellectual inferiority of African Americans in their book The Bell Curve, Gould exposed their shoddy methodology and biased analysis in The New Yorker. Their goal, he charged, was to justify “reduction or elimination of welfare, ending of affirmative action in schools and workplaces, cessation of Head Start and other forms of preschool education, cutting of programs for slowest learners, and application of funds to the gifted.”

Gould wrote, “The paths to destruction are often indirect, but ideas can be agents as sure as guns and bombs.”

When the Kansas Board of Education voted to eliminate evolution from the state’s curriculum, Gould flew to Kansas to lecture that “to teach biology without evolution is like teaching English without grammar.” The Board was eventually forced to reverse course.

Said Gould, “The more we realize the vast possibilities of human welfare which science has given us, the more we must recognize our total failure to make any adequate use of them … Instead of devoting the highest powers of our greatest men to remedy these evils, we see the governments of the most advanced nations arming their people to the teeth, and expending much of their wealth and all the resources of their science, in preparation for the destruction of life, of property, and of happiness.”

But he remained optimistic, saying, “I suspect that ‘mean morality’ … has greatly improved in the last millennium of human history. In most of the world, we no longer keep slaves, virtually imprison women, mock the insane, burn witches, or slaughter our rivals with such gleeful abandon, or such unquestioned feelings of righteousness.”

Certainly Stephen Jay Gould was right. It is for his students and admirers to ensure that the same progress extends throughout the world.

Chester Steorra is a reader in Connecticut. He can be reached at pww@pww.org

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