Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould born on September 10, 1941  and died May 20, 2002 was a prominent American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation. Gould spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the  American Museum of Natural History in New York. In the latter years of his life, Gould also taught biology and evolution at New York University near his home in SoHo.

His most important contribution to science was that the evolution proceeded in punctuated manner meaning that there were burst of activity followed by periods of stability. This was against the Darwin postulate of evolution being gradual and smooth, phyletic gradualism.

New York times wrote an obituary on his death which speaks about his brilliance, scientific fervor and power of argument.

Death of a Paleontologist

New York Times Editorial
The New York Times, May 21, 2002

Perhaps the only person who was really prepared for Stephen Jay Gould’s death was Mr. Gould himself. Twenty years ago the scientist, who died yesterday at the age of 60, had a life-threatening bout of cancer. Many readers will remember the way he wrote about that episode, not only for its personal candor but also for the fact that he found comfort in a statistical analysis of his chances of survival. It was wholly in keeping with the tenor of Mr. Gould’s character that he could turn an understanding of statistics into a toehold on life itself. It was also in keeping that he chose to write about it for a popular audience.

The vast majority of the people who know Mr. Gould’s name know him as a scientific essayist, not as a paleontologist or evolutionary theorist, let alone an expert on Cerion land snails. They know him as a man who had an opinion on nearly everything and a way to turn nearly every opinion he had into a tour de force of analogy and historical example. His scientific colleagues found him almost as brilliant as his popular audience did, but considerably more exasperating as well.

He was never a scientific bomb-thrower; he worked, after all, in the heart of the scientific establishment. But he delighted in small explosions, and he never hesitated to set them off when he thought it would do a discipline good. His belief that evolution moved in leaps—in punctuated equilibrium, to use his phrase—rather than slowly and continuously struck off far more heat than it might have if Mr. Gould had not reveled in the role of controversialist. That was his evolutionary niche.

A man with so many opinions is bound, pretty often, to be wrong, but Mr. Gould could be just as entertaining when he was wrong as when he was right. That was another reason he exasperated his colleagues, that and the fact that he came to stand for science itself in the minds of many lay readers. How his work will play in the years to come remains to be seen, of course. His scientific achievements are solid, and he has done everything possible to throw light on the subjects that mattered to him. And if some of that light, just on the off chance, fell on Mr. Gould himself, it is hard to begrudge him that now.


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