*Gould, Stephen Jay
Gould, Stephen Jay
One of the most significant contemporary science essayists is Stephen Jay Gould, recognized for his mastery of prose and for the importance of his primary topic, evolutionary biology, in an era when it is under increasing attack from those outside the scientific community. Gould, a professor of zoology, geology, and the history of science at Harvard University, has won many awards for both his scientific and his writing accomplishments. His column, “This View of Life,” which has appeared in Natural History since 1973, was honored by winning the National Magazine Award for essays and criticism in 1980. His books have also won the American Book Award for science, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. His essays have been widely anthologized.
Gould is a prolific writer, appealing to a wide variety of audiences. In addition to professional scientists and people with an avowed interest in science, he has also regularly contributed essays to the New York Review of Books. In all of these venues, Gould attempts to explain and address the intellectual concerns of evolutionary biology.
In an interview he asserts that “there is no reason to dilute the intellectual content at all” to accommodate his audience. His essays continue and expand the tradition of popular science exemplified by 19th-century scientists such as Asa Gray and T.H.Huxley. In fact, Gould has asserted that the tradition he is working in goes back to St. Francis of Assisi’s works on animal and bird life. His essays make frequent use of literary allusions, quoting from such diverse sources as Dr. Seuss, the Bible, Gilbert and Sullivan, Shakespeare, and Alexander Pope. He frequently begins his essays with literary and cultural comparisons to draw the reader into the important scientific information he wants to impart. Some of his essays are distinctly personal, revealing the immediate circumstances of their development. Similar to Montaigne’s Essais, Gould’s writings try out ideas and thoughts, revealing a human voice speaking of human concerns.
The overarching theme of all his writing is evolution. Many of his essays are explicitly persuasive in explaining and defending the theory of evolution as one founded on factual evidence of variation which “must be random, or at least not preferentially inclined toward adaptation” as he writes in the prologue to his first collection, Ever Since Darwin (1977). Gould’s belief in, and his arguing for, this view of evolution influences other themes and rhetorical strategies in his essays. One of his principal themes, supporting his view of evolution, is his definition of science, which he sees as a part of human culture; according to Gould scientists are as influenced by their personalities, personal histories, and cultural biases as they are by the objective truth of the scientific method. As he wrote in The Mismeasure of Man (1981):
Science, since people must do it, is a socially embedded activity. It progresses by hunch, vision, and intuition. Much of its change through time does not record a closer approach to absolute truth, but the alteration of cultural contexts that influence it so strongly. Facts are not pure and unsullied bits of information; culture also influences what we see and how we see it. Theories, moreover, are not inexorable inductions from facts. The most creative theories are often imaginative visions imposed upon facts; the source of imagination is also strongly cultural.
This definition of science summarizes the important characteristics of Gould’s view of science, which is rooted both in the traditional scientific method with its idea of factual reality, testable hypotheses, and enduring truths, and in the evidence of historical and cultural influences on science as presented by historians and sociologists of science.
Gould’s definition of science structures the choice of topics of most of his essays.
Many of his essays focusing on individual scientists allow him to accentuate the human activity of science and its idiosyncratic nature. Essays on scientific figures—such as Charles Darwin, from “Darwin’s Delay” (1973) to “Spin Doctoring Darwin” (1995); Sigmund Freud, “Freudian Slips” (1987); “The Passion of Antoine Lavoisier” (1989); and Pierre-Simon Laplace and Georges Buffon, “The Celestial Mechanic and the Earthly Naturalist” (1994)—show how scientists arrive at their conclusions and are influenced by the culture in which they live. He also introduces readers to obscure scientists, such as William Whiston, Isaac Newton’s successor as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, in “The Godfather of Disaster” (1987), or Emmanuel Mendes da Costa, “the only Jewish naturalist of note in eighteenth century Britain” in “The Anatomy Lesson” (1995). He also argues that theories which have been dismissed as unscientific were often based on the best science available at the time, as in “Crazy Old Randolph Kirkpatrick” (1979) or “Kropotkin Was No Crackpot” (1988).
By using these scientists to show that the development of science, often seen as linearly progressing toward perfection, is influenced by random events, dependent on historical development, Gould implicitly asserts the correctness of evolutionary theory.
Science, as in life, is constrained by its history, tied to the general cultural progression, quirks of fate, individual peculiarities, and historical biases. Gould also reveals in his essays their own origins, thus linking his definition of science with his production of essays, both of which reveal the same traits of evolutionary and historical change.
Born 10 September 1941 in New York City. Studied at Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio, A.B. in geology, 1963; Columbia University, New York, Ph.D., 1967. Married Deborah Lee, 1965: two sons. Geology instructor, Antioch College, 1966; taught geology and zoology at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, from 1967: currently Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, from 1982; also assistant curator, 1967–71, associate curator, 1971–73, and curator of invertebrate paleontology, from 1973, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Lecturer at various universities and institutions around the world. Associate editor, Evolution, 1970–72; member of the editorial board, Systematic Zoology, 1970–72, Paleobiology, 1974–76, American Naturalist, 1977–80, and Science, from 1986; columnist of “This View of Life,” Natural History, from 1973; contributor to many other journals. President, American Society of Naturalists, 1979–80, and the Paleontological Society, 1985–86; vice president, 1975, and president, 1990, Society for the Study of Evolution. Member of the advisory board, Nova television series, from 1980. Member, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Awards: many, including National Magazine
Award, for essays, 1980; American Book award, for The Panda’s Thumb, 1981; National Book Critics Circle Award, 1981, and American Book Award, 1982, both for The Mismeasure of Man; MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, 1981–86; Phi Beta Kappa Book Award, for Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, 1984, and for Wonderful Life, 1990; Sarah Josepha Hale Medal, 1986; Vursell Award, 1987; Rhône-Poulenc Prize, for Wonderful Life, 1991; honorary degrees from over 30 universities and colleges.
Essays and Related Prose
Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History, 1977
The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History, 1980
Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History, 1983
The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History, 1985
An Urchin in the Storm: Essays About Books and Ideas, 1987
Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (lectures), 1987
Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History, 1991
Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History, 1993
Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History, 1995
Other writings: The Mismeasure of Man (1981), concerning the development of IQ testing, and Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989).
Asante, Molefi Kete, “Locating a Text: Implications of Afrocentric Theory,” in Language and Literature in the African American Imagination, edited by Carol Aisha Blackshire- Belay, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1992
Becker, John E., “A Concealed Totality: Science and Poetry in the Essays of Stephen Jay Gould,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 74, nos. 3–4 (Fall-Winter 1991):559–79
Kaufer, David S., and Cheryl Geisler, “A Scheme for Representing Written Argument,” Journal of Advanced Composition II, no. 1 (Winter 1991):107–22
McRae, Murdo William, “Stephen Jay Gould and the Contingent Nature of History,” CLIO: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History 22, no. 3 (Spring 1993):239–50
Masur, Louis P., “Stephen Jay Gould’s Vision of History,” in The Literature of Science: Perspectives on Popular Scientific Writings, edited by Murdo William McCrae, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993
Morrell, Roy, “What Happened to the Dinosaurs?,” Thomas Hardy Journal 8, no. 1 (February 1992):37–40
Selzer, Jack, editor, Understanding Scientific Prose, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993
Winterowd, W.Ross, “Rediscovering the Essay,” Journal of Advanced Composition 8, nos. 1–2 (1988):146–57
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