Stephen Jay Gould, RIP

by Steve Sailer

National Review, June 3, 2002

 

Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, the literary world's favorite scientist, has died of lung cancer at the age of 60.

Let us begin by speaking well of Gould the man. A deadly cancer struck him two decades ago; he somehow beat it and went on to do an enormous amount of hard work. He was an authority on West Indian land snails. He wrote dozens of books in a sonorous prose style that struck people of nonscientific inclinations as exactly what a Great Man of Science ought to sound like. Although always an adversary of Creationism, in later life he grew tired of the war of intellectual extermination being fought by extremists on both sides of the religion/science divide, and wisely urged forbearance. His vast energy and mellifluous prose style made him a celebrity. He portrayed himself on "The Simpsons" and sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" a capella all the way through as part of Ken Burns's baseball documentary.

Was he a great scientist, though?

Gould was wonderfully ambitious. He marketed himself as the new, improved Charles Darwin for our age of political correctness. Gould's positive contributions to science were more meager than his august reputation among subscribers to The New York Review of Books might suggest, but they should not be wholly overlooked. He gave his Big Idea the majestic name "punctuated equilibria." In simpler terms, what he meant was that evolution doesn't always proceed at uniform rates. This was hardly an original concept (many of his detractors among hard scientists called it "evolution by jerks"), but Gould's vast talent for PR served a useful purpose in reminding us that evolution can sometimes occur at nearly the speed of revolution.

It's important, though, to distinguish between Gould's helpful contributions to understanding the evolution of ancient fossils and his furious opposition to scientifically studying the impact of evolution upon living humans. In the great debates that shaped today's science of human nature, Gould was consistently on the side of negativism and obscurantism. He relentlessly sallied forth with Neo-Lysenkoist attacks on sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, and psychometricians. While Creationists attack the Darwinian theory of what animals evolved from, Gould railed against Darwinian explanations of what humans evolved to. Raised by his father as a Marxist, Gould hated the possibility that evolution had shaped human nature beyond the powers of social engineers to alter. He especially loathed the concept that humans varied genetically. Yet, he was never able to construct a theory of his own that made more accurate predictions about contemporary humanity.

Gould's most famous and influential book was The Mismeasure of Man, which exemplified his trademark combination of antiquarianism and guilt by association in the service of character assassination. In it, he attempted to destroy the modern science of IQ by recounting the stumblings of 19th-century researchers working before the IQ test was even invented. Of course, that line of attack makes as much sense as trying to discredit modern astronomy by writing a book revealing that ancient astronomers thought the sun went around the Earth.

By the last decade of his life, Gould's moment had passed. His theories on human nature had proven sterile. The shy, little-known William D. Hamilton's rigorous version of Darwinism had triumphed. The bright young women on campus were flocking to evolutionary psychology, a field that the old leftist found deeply suspicious. Although Gould's slanders had slowed the scientific study of intelligence by helping starve it of funding, it continued to advance.

The more generous of Gould's many enemies preferred to look on the bright side of Gould's ferocious onslaughts on themselves. Edward O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology, wrote that he was appreciative of having such a formidable opponent. In fact, during his late forties, Wilson taught himself to write like a literary intellectual precisely so he could match Gould's appeal to nonscientists.

The science-fiction novelist and polymath Jerry Pournelle debated Gould in his prime. After Gould's death this week, Pournelle summed up, "I think Gould's legacy left the House of Intellect stronger particularly where he was wrong, because he made his opponents rethink their positions and sharpen their concepts. He did that for me, and for that I will always be grateful. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine. Lux perpetua luceat eis."

P.S. Jerry's Latin translates as follows: "Give them eternal rest, Lord. Let light perpetual shine on them."

 

Steve Sailer (www.iSteve.com) is a columnist for VDARE.com and the film critic for The American Conservative.

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