Stephen Jay Gould, (1941-2002)

The small world of “very interesting, very smart scientists who write about evolution for a popular audience” has lost its most prominent member with the death of Stephen Jay Gould at age 60.

I bumped briefly up against this world in the mid-1980s when I spent several summers working for Dr. Chris McGowan in the Dept. of Vertebrate Palaeontology (now Palaeobiology) at the ROM in Toronto. I started off in the bone room sorting turtle bones. Later I converted FORTRAN programs for linear regression into BASIC. It was fun work with absorbing people.

It’s a rare person who can both master the technical arcana of science and also interpret science to the masses. Chris is one (In the Beginning: A Scientist Shows Why the Creationists Are Wrong, T-Rex to Go: Build Your Own from Chicken Bone, Dinosaur: Digging Up a Giant) and Stephen Jay Gould was another.

A reviewer of his book Ontogeny and Phylogeny said it well:

Stephen Jay Gould’s brilliance is evident as always in his ability to make the esoterics of great science available to people who have not thoroughly studied his field. He doesn’t dumb it down, nor remove such huge slices that we are fools walking that dangerous tightrope of a little knowledge.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, he wrote The Median Isn’t the Message. Given that he lived with cancer for 20 years, it’s worth a read more now than ever.

He will be missed.


Oliver's picture
Oliver on May 21, 2002 - 18:05

Thanks for that essay link, Peter. That was a good read. The NY Times has more of a more dispassionate obituary… than the Harvard Gazette. It notes that many evolutionary theorists disagree with the ideas about evolution that Gould “popularized.” Which is not the same as saying his ideas don’t make worthwhile reading.

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