Stephen Jay Gould, Biologist and Theorist on Evolution, Dies at 60

Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary theorist at Harvard University whose lectures, research and prolific output of essays helped to reinvigorate the field of paleontology, died today at his home in Manhattan. He was 60 years old. The cause was adenocarcinoma, his wife, Rhonda Roland Schearer, said.

Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary theorist at Harvard University whose lectures, research and prolific output of essays helped to reinvigorate the field of paleontology, died today at his home in Manhattan. He was 60 years old. The cause was adenocarcinoma, his wife, Rhonda Roland Schearer, said.

Perhaps the most influential and best known evolutionary biologist since Charles Darwin, Dr. Gould touched off numerous debates by challenging scientists to rethink evolutionary patterns and processes. He is credited with bringing a forsaken paleontological perspective to the evolutionary mainstream.

Dr. Gould achieved a fame unprecedented among modern evolutionary biologists. The closest thing to a household name in the field, he became part of mainstream iconography when he was depicted in cartoon form on “The Simpsons.” Renovations of his SoHo loft in Manhattan were featured in a glowing article in Architectural Digest.

Famed for both brilliance and arrogance, Dr. Gould was the object of admiration and jealousy, both revered and reviled by colleagues.

Outside the academy, Dr. Gould was almost universally adored. In his column in Natural History magazine, he employed a voice that was a successful combination of learned Harvard professor and baseball-loving everyman. The Cal Ripken of essayists, he produced a meditation for each of 300 consecutive issues starting in 1974 and ending in 2001. Many were collected into books like “Bully for Brontosaurus.”

Born on Sept. 10, 1941 in New York City, Dr. Gould took his first steps toward a career in paleontology as a 5-year-old when he visited the American Museum of Natural History with his father, a court stenographer.

“I dreamed of becoming a scientist, in general, and a paleontologist, in particular, ever since the tyrannosaurus skeleton awed and scared me,” he once wrote. In an upbringing filled with fossils and the Yankees, he attended P.S. 26 and Jamaica High School. He then studied geology at Antioch College in Ohio.

In 1967 he received a doctorate in paleontology from Columbia University and went on to teach at Harvard where he would spend the rest of his career. But it was in graduate school that Dr. Gould and a fellow graduate student, Dr. Niles Eldredge, now a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, began sowing the seeds for the most famous of the still-roiling debates that he is credited with helping to start.

When studying the fossil record, the two students could not find the gradual, continuous change in fossil forms they were taught was the stuff of evolution. Instead, they found sudden appearances of new fossil forms (sudden, that is, on the achingly slow geological time scale) followed by long periods in which these organisms changed little.

Evolutionary biologists had always ascribed such difficulties to the famous incompleteness of the fossil record. Then in 1972, the two proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which suggested that both the sudden appearances and lack of change were, in fact, real. According to the theory, there are long periods of time, sometimes millions of years, during which species change little, if at all. Intermittently, new species arise and there is rapid evolutionary change on a geological time scale (still interminably slow on human time scales) resulting in the sudden appearance of new forms in the fossil record. (This creates punctuations of rapid change against a backdrop of steady equilibrium, hence the name.)

Thirty years later, scientists are still arguing over how often the fossil record shows a punctuated pattern and how such a pattern might arise. Many credit punctuated equilibrium with helping to promote the flowering of the field of macroevolution in which researchers study large-scale evolutionary changes often in a geological time frame.

In 1977, Dr. Gould’s book, “Ontogeny and Phylogeny,” drew biologists’ attention to the long-ignored relationship between how organisms develop — that is, how an adult gets built from the starting plans of an egg — and how they evolve.

“Gould has given biologists a new way to see the organisms they study,” wrote Dr. Stan Rachootin, an evolutionary biologist at Mount Holyoke College. Many credit the book with helping to inspire the new field of evo-devo, or the study of evolution and development.

Dr. Gould and Dr. Richard Lewontin, also at Harvard, soon elaborated on the importance of how organisms are built, or their architecture, in a famous paper about a feature of buildings known as a spandrel. Spandrels, the spaces in the corners above an arch, exist as a necessary outcome of building with arches. In the same way, they argued, some features of organisms exist simply as the result of how an organism develops or is built. Thus researchers, they warned, should refrain from assuming every feature exists for some adaptive purpose.

In March, Dr. Gould saw publication of “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory” which he described as his magnum opus over which he toiled for decades. The book lays out his vision for synthesizing Darwin’s original ideas and Dr. Gould’s major contributions to macroevolutionary theory.

“It is a heavyweight work,” wrote Dr. Mark Ridley, evolutionary biologist at University of Oxford in England. And despite sometimes “almost pathological logorrhea” at 1,433 pages, “it is still a magnificent summary of a quarter-century of influential thinking and a major publishing event in evolutionary biology.”

Dr. Gould was also dogged by vociferous, often high-profile critics. Some of these scientists charged that his theories, like punctuated equilibrium, were so malleable and difficult to pin down that they were essentially untestable.

After once proclaiming that Dr. Gould had brought paleontology back to the high table of evolutionary theory, Dr. John Maynard Smith, an evolutionary biologist at University of Sussex in England, wrote that other evolutionary biologists “tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with.” Sometimes these criticisms descend into so-called “Gould-bashing” where the charges are as personal as intellectual. Punctuated equilibrium, for example, has been called “evolution by jerks.”

Some who study smaller-scale evolution within species, called microevolutionists, reject his arguments that there are unique features to large-scale, or macroevolution. Instead, they say that macroevolution is nothing more than microevolution played out over long periods. Dr. Gould also had heated battles with sociobiologists, researchers employing a particular method of studying animal behavior, and there are many there who reject his ideas as well.

Others criticized him for championing theories that challenge parts of the modern Darwinian framework, an act some see as aiding and abetting creationists. Yet Dr. Gould was a visible opponent of efforts to get evolution out of the classroom.

Most people knew Dr. Gould as an entertaining esssayist. Credited with saving the dying art form of the scientific essay, he often told tales of scientific insight by pulling together unrelated ideas or things. (He began one essay by conjoining Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin — an unlikely couple — noting his discovery that they were born on the same day.) A champion of the underdog (except in his support of the Yankees), he favored theories and scientists that had been forgotten or whose reputations were in disrepair.

Dr. Gould also popularized evolutionary ideas at Harvard, sometimes finding his lecture halls filled to standing room only. But while his tales of adventure typically took place in the library, colleagues said that Dr. Gould, whose specialty was Cerion land snails in the Bahamas, was also impressive in the field.

Noting that in graduate school Dr. Gould dodged bullets and drug runners to collect specimens of this group comprised of both living and fossil species, Dr. Sally Walker, who studies Cerion at University of Georgia, once said, “That guy can drive down the left side of the road,” which is required in the Bahamas, “then jump out the door and find Cerion when we can’t even see it.” Then, she recalled, this multilingual, internationally respected Renaissance man, student of classical music and astronomy, and countless other eclectia, might joyously break out into Gilbert and Sullivan song.

Dr. Gould is survived by his wife, Ms. Roland Schearer, and his two children by a first marriage, Jesse and Ethan.

Dr. Gould also had a battle with cancer in 1982, diagnosed with abdominal mesothelioma. In an essay, he described his reaction to the news: dragging himself to Harvard’s medical library as soon as he could walk. There he used his knowledge of statistics to read the scientific literature and find the strength to fight a diagnosis considered a death sentence.

“When my skein runs out I hope to face the end calmly and in my own way,” he wrote. However, “death is the ultimate enemy — and I find nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light.” He survived the illness through experimental treatment, though his death was erroneously reported at that time.

Dr. Gould received innumerable awards and honors, including a Macarthur “genius” grant the first year they were awarded. He served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He was the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard and the Astor Visiting Research Professor of Biology at New York University.

Whether eloquently and forcefully championing new or forgotten ideas or dismantling what he saw as misconceptions, Dr. Gould spent a career trying to shed light on an impossibly wide variety of subjects.

He once wrote, “I love the wry motto of the Paleontological Society (meant both literally and figuratively, for hammers are the main tool of our trade): Frango ut patefaciam — I break in order to reveal.”

Author: Carol Kaesuk Yoon

News Service: New York Times


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