The Mismeasure of Man | Study Guide

Stephen Jay Gould

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Stephen Jay Gould | Biography


Tyrannosaurus Skeleton Inspires a Life in Science

Stephen Jay Gould was born September 10, 1941, in Queens, a borough of New York City. The United States entered World War II (1939–45) just three months later, and his father, Leonard Gould, was drafted into the Navy. As a result, Gould was raised by his artist mother, Eleanor Gould, for the first few years of his life. After the war ended and his father returned, Gould's father took his five-year-old son to the American Museum of Natural History. The young boy was so awed by the enormous skeleton of the tyrannosaurus rex that he decided right then that he wanted to become a paleontologist and study dinosaurs.

Gould pursued his love of fossils—along with a passion for baseball and the New York Yankees—throughout his years in the public schools of Queens. He then enrolled at Antioch College, a small liberal arts institution in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He spent as much time in college demonstrating for the civil rights of African Americans as he did studying. This was the early 1960s, a time when racial segregation was the norm throughout the country. In The Mismeasure of Man, Gould recalls how there were separate nights for whites and African Americans at bowling alleys and skating rinks. Blacks had to sit in the balcony of the local movie theater while whites sat downstairs. Gould protested against segregation and for integration in all these places. When he studied abroad for a year in England, he staged weekly sit-ins at a whites-only dance hall as well.

In 1963 Gould graduated from Antioch with a degree in geology. He then returned to New York to work on his childhood dream—paleontology. As part of his work toward his doctorate, Gould traveled to the Bahamas where he searched for Cerion, a type of snail, and their fossils. Fellow graduate student Sally Walker, a paleontologist at the University of Georgia, recalls how Gould fearlessly evaded gun-toting drug runners in order to find his fossil specimens. When he found one he would often burst into a song from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

Gould received his doctorate in paleontology from Columbia University in 1967. A year later he was invited to teach at Harvard University. He would remain at Harvard for the rest of his career.

A 20th-Century Renaissance Man

In an era when science was dominated by specialists, Gould always stood out as an exception. He was as intense about his hobbies as he was his work. He sang classical music in a Boston choir and cheered on his beloved New York Yankees in baseball. When he was invited by Natural History Magazine to write a monthly column about science, Gould wove facts from art, literature, sports, history, and even Disney cartoons into his essays. This became Gould's trademark style and earned him a devoted audience—and a reputation as a man with wide-ranging knowledge.

Ultimately, Gould wrote 300 monthly essays for the column titled "This View of Life." Many of those pieces were adapted and included in the numerous books Gould published for lay readers. They had catchy titles such as The Panda's Thumb (1980), Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes (1983), The Flamingo's Smile (1985), Bully for Brontosaurus (1991), Eight Little Piggies (1993), and Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995) among others. Gould became so famous in popular culture that in 1997 he even appeared in an episode of the animated television series The Simpsons.

Meanwhile, Gould advanced regularly in the academic arena, eventually holding three different posts at the same time. At Harvard, he was promoted to professor of geology and then in 1982 to the prestigious Alexander Agassiz chair in zoology. He was also the curator of invertebrate paleontology at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. From 1996 to 2002 Gould traveled back and forth from Boston to New York in order to become a visiting research professor of biology at New York University. He served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for three years and was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Evolution by Jerks, Not Creeps

Gould is perhaps best-known for an evolutionary theory he developed while still a graduate student at Columbia University with colleague Niles Eldredge. This theory, called punctuated equilibrium, takes issue with one detail of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Darwin believed that the process of one group of creatures splitting off from another to become a separate species happened gradually over eons. Gould and Eldredge disagreed with that theory, suggesting instead that speciation can happen very rapidly over short bursts of time.

This theory infuriated orthodox Darwinians, some of whom responded by calling Gould and Eldredge's theory "evolution by jerks." Gould returned the taunt in kind, saying the orthodox position was better called "evolution by creeps." He was especially upset when his scientific opponents accused him of giving ammunition to creationists (those who believe life originates from divine creation). They were using punctuated equilibrium to claim that science was now admitting that evolution never happened. Gould never wavered in his support for evolution nor in his admiration for Darwin, whom he considered a personal hero. He took pains to explain why his theory of punctuated equilibrium was an amendment to Darwin's theory, not a rejection of it. Gould said that either "through design or stupidity" creationists misunderstood him.

Gould proved this in 1981 when he provided expert testimony for evolution in the landmark case McLean vs. Arkansas. This was a lawsuit filed by various parties against an Arkansas statute that required public schools to teach so-called "creation science" in the classroom. After hearing testimony from many biologists, including a written deposition by Gould, a federal judge tossed out the state law. The judge ruled that it violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, saying creationism was not a science, but a religion.

Reception of The Mismeasure of Man and Later Years

The Mismeasure of Man remains one of Gould's most famous books. It garnered immediate praise from many reviewers in both the popular and academic press and won the National Book Critics Circle award in 1981. It went on to receive the Outstanding Book Award for 1983 from the American Educational Research Association and was named to two lists of the best science books of the century. But as Gould's work often did, The Mismeasure of Man sparked controversy as well. Although many scientists agreed with Gould's conclusions on intelligence, others strongly disagreed.

Gould received many awards and honors in his lifetime, including a MacArthur Foundation "genius" Fellowship in 1981 and the National Book Award that same year for The Panda's Thumb. The Library of Congress designated him a "living legend" in April 2000.

Gould, who was married twice and had two sons, survived a bout with abdominal mesothelioma in 1982. It is a particularly virulent form of cancer that according to medical literature has an eight-month survival rate of only 50 percent. Most people would hear that as a death sentence, but, in his characteristic way, Gould researched the statistics and later wrote an essay about the experience for Discover magazine. In it, Gould emphasized the simple but hopeful fact that if the death rate is 50 percent, that means that half of all patients live longer—potentially much longer. That is precisely what Gould did, living another 20 years. He died in his Manhattan Soho apartment on May 20, 2002, at age 60 from a second, unrelated lung cancer.

Productive until the final weeks of his life, Gould published his last book, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, in March of 2002.

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