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Stephen Jay Gould, 1941 - 2002

Broadcast in the Science Show on ABC's Radio National on Saturday 25/5/2002

The Science Show pays tribute to one of the most influential evolutionary biologists of the 20th century, Stephen Jay Gould, who died this week.

Robyn Williams: Stephen Jay Gould was without doubt one of the greatest science communicators of the 20th Century he died on Monday.

Stephen Jay Gould: You go on radio talk shows in America and start arguing with Creationists you'll invariably get this wonderfully specious argument. Somebody will call up and say, hey, I've really got one for you. You say people evolve from apes, right? And I say yeah, if you want to look at the common ancestor you call it an ape, sure. Alright, I've got you now, I can disprove evolution. If people evolved from apes why are apes still around? Now, I just have to chuckle because what's embedded in that of course, is this wonderful assumption that evolution is a ladder of progress and if people evolved from apes, then apes are gone, but of course, evolution is a bush, it's a tree.

Robyn Williams: Stephen Jay Gould in typical flight. Paul Willis was mesmerised.

Paul Willis: It was a bright sunny day in 1982 and I'd never seen the Stephen Roberts Lecture Theatre at Sydney University so full. We'd been told by our first year palaeontology lecturer Robin Wass that this was a man and a lecture not to be missed. The director of the Botanic Gardens and his assistant arrived late and had to sit on the floor along with dozens of others. Then we all sat spellbound for over an hour as Stephen Jay Gould worked his alchemy.

Stephen Jay Gould: It got dark and the sounds of the night began, the occasional grumbling or growling of a carnivore with the incessant amphibian and insect noises, and the Southern Cross rose in the sky, which of course we don't see where I come from, and three planets were lined up in the arms of Scorpio. I think in a sense one could feel quite close to the origin of religion, not as a statement about realities, just as a statement about human psyche of course and the irony that struck me: here I was feeling this sense of kinship with the whole history of humanity which had begun there, but there I was, by political accident in the 20th Century, sitting in the midst of the nation most committed to denying that emotional feeling of kinship.

Paul Willis: Never before or since have I witnessed someone take threads of thought and weave them into a fabric so rich it was tangible. His lectures, like his writing, could transform esoteric and arcane theories into enlightened entertainment. He could bind together seemingly odd, disparate facts and phenomena to present insights into science and the history of life, in a way that no one else has successfully copied. He could present a scientific theory to you as a Rubic's cube that he could then pull apart, rearrange and reassemble in ways that you would think were impossible. In short, this guy could communicate.

Stephen Jay Gould will be remembered by many people as one of the greatest science communicators of all time. He was certainly up with the likes of T.H. Huxley and Charles Darwin, both of whom were his personal heroes. And, in many ways, his ability to take the complexities of science and present them in ways that anybody could understand, he was without peer.

But Gould was also a leading palaeontologist and a champion of science. When evolution was put on trial, again, in Little Rock, Arkansas, Gould was one of the main witnesses to lead to the defeat of creationist babble as a viable alternative in science classrooms.

In the realms of science his research spanned from the analyses of mammal-like reptiles from the Permian Period through to studies in the tempo and modes of evolutionary change. Scientifically, he will be most remembered as the co-inventor, along with Niles Eldredge, of Punctuated Equilibrium; the proposal that species don't change gradually through time but that speciation is a rapid event followed by long periods of morphological stasis. It marries evolution to the fossil record where new species appear suddenly and remain unchanged for extended periods. While some have argued that Punk Eek as it's become known was not really anything new, it was a synthesis of several established theories into a new understanding of why the fossil record looks the way it does.

Gould was also a champion of contingency theory; the idea that it's not just good genes that let you win the evolutionary race, it's also good luck. You can be the best fish in the pond but, if the pond dries up, you're dead. You can rule the earth for over one hundred million years and be perfectly adapted to your environment (as in the case of the dinosaurs) but if a large enough meteorite hits the earth, you're extinct. Gould forced the mutation of evolution from the stately unfolding of life as if by some grand plan to a stop/start chaotic race with few rules and no predetermined outcomes.

Less well known is Gould's work on land snails, which became the testing ground of his broader-scoped, more theoretical works. He showed that several varieties of land snails previously identified as numerous species spread across several genera, were in fact, a few highly variable species within just the one genus. Here was evolution at work, generating the diversity required for natural selection to act upon. Gould's snails were for him as the Galapagos finches were for Darwin.

But if Gould's scientific research is a little too remote for popular consumption, he will be remembered by most people for his beautiful essays. For 27 years he wrote a monthly column in the prestigious magazine
Natural History. Each one of these essays was a masterpiece by itself, chock full of turns of phrases as elegant as any Mozart motif. Most people with an interest in communicating science would die happy if they had written a single piece that matched a Gould essay in elegance and clarity. But, not only had Gould written more than 300 of them, he also found time to write several best-selling books, all with his trademark lyrical touch.

The titles of his essays are as idiosyncratic as his ability to write. Of Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples, George Canning's Left Buttock and The Origin of Species and Lucy on the Earth in Stasis deal with, respectively, an embryological explanation of why men have nipples and women have clitorises, how single, seemingly insignificant events can be interlinked with profound changes in history and the fossil record of early hominids as a study of Punk Eek. He wrote about fossils and animals and plants and geology and mathematics. He included anecdotes from history, music, architecture, art and his beloved baseball.

But perhaps his most remarkable essay was reproduced in the volume Bully for Brontosaurus. The Median Isn't the Message elucidates some basic principles of statistics and their interpretation. What's remarkable about this essay is the vehicle he uses to careen around the concepts of means, medians and averages. Gould's life threatening experience at the hands of abdominal mesothelioma in 1982 is woven through the essay, turning a simple explanation of numbers into a profoundly personal excursion into his own mortality. It was a battle he won, against the odds. But this time around, unfortunately, Gould was not so lucky in his fight against lung cancer. He died last Monday night, Australian time.

His second collection of essays, The Panda's Thumb, is dedicated to three teachers from his primary years and includes a quote from Henry Adams. "A teacher can never tell where his influence stops". Gould will be remembered for the details of life that he's taught us all and the influences of his teachings will last forever.

Stephen Jay Gould: I do love science, after all that’s why I got into it and I hate to see it misused for social purposes that are also alien to me. Because the story of the history of biological views on race is largely the story of the denial of that brotherhood and of the attempt to erect fixed differences, which of course have their obvious political utility, as support for whatever status quo exists at the moment.

Robyn Williams: Paul Willis of Catalyst fame, with a tribute to Stephen Jay Gould who died of brain and lung cancer at the age of 60.

Guests on this program:

Paul Willis
Palaeontologist and
ABC Radio & TV journalist

Further information:

Books by Stephen Jay Gould

Obituary - Harvard Gazette

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