Intellect, courage and truth – A tribute to Stephen J. Gould

Intellect, courage and truth - A tribute to Stephen J. Gould
Intellect, courage and truth - A tribute to Stephen J. Gould

Several years ago one small news item appeared in most of the newspapers and many reputed foreign journals. Given the length of the column and the manner in which it was written, it might not have attracted much attention. Many people might have missed it and even those who read it might not have attached much significance to the contents.

This was really pathetic considering that the column had mentioned in a routine fashion the death of Stephen J Gould, arguably the greatest evolutionary biologist of the previous century- which should have certainly deserved a better treatment.

A few years earlier when Gould had gone for a medical checkup for some ailment, some test had been performed. Gould had noticed a certain reluctance on the part of the medical investigation team, particularly one nurse to give him the implications of the result of the investigation. He was merely told what in the opinion of the medical staff, a patient had to know (apparently they did not know his stature as a great medical scientist).

However having overheard a medical term he went to the library of the Harvard University. On perusing the relevant medical books Gould found out the reason why he had not been told the truth by the investigating group. He had been afflicted with a rare form of abdominal cancer which even among malignant tumours, had the reputation for the swiftness with which it claimed the life of its victims.

But without panicking, he calmly went about reading all the facts related to that cancer. With scientific precision he worked out the lifespan, available to him using statistical probability Gould found out that he had a chance to live for many more years if luck held. This is precisely what happened. After a long fight with cancer Gould died many years later, than what the doctors had probably calculated.

But then Gould was an extraordinary man of rare moral courage. In his many thought provoking books, he was outspoken and hard hitting condemning intellectual dishonesty, and deliberate actions taken on the basis of misinterpretation of scientific findings–such as a man called Goddard had done with the results of intelligence quotient tests in the early part of the last century to restrict immigration of Jews into America( IQ tests had been devised only to select people who needed extra help, not to identify morons. So it had no other scope). The mind boggles at the thought of how many Einsteins had been refused entry into America because of Goddard and his team. Gould’s book” The Mismeasure of Man” clearly brings out this point.

Throughout his career and writings, he spoke out against cultural oppression in all its forms, especially what he saw as the pseudoscience used in the service of racism and sex.

Stephen JayGould was born in Queens, New York, on September 10, 1941. His father Leonard was a court stenographer and a World War II veteran in the United States Navy. His mother Eleanor was an artist, whose parents were Jewish immigrants living and working in the city’s Garment District. Gould and his younger brother Peter were raised in Bayside, a middle-class neighbourhood in the northeastern section of Queens. He attended elementary school and graduated from Jamaica High School.

The sight of the Tyrannosaurus Rex at the American museum of natural history aroused his interest in biology, when he was a five years old boy. In that moment Gould decided to become a palaeontologist. Gould who Completed his Ph.D at Columbia in 1967, he moved to Harvard where he became Professor of Geology and curator of the Harvard museum of comparative Zoology.

In 1973 Gould used the fossils of the Burgess Shale to theorise, that evolution is not a ladder of

predictable progress but a copiously branching bush continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction! Working in the West Indies for many years, he put forth the theory of “punctuated equilibrium”, which views evolution as episodic rather than continuous,

Nevertheless, he was a supporter of Darwin and was against creationism, which he discouraged from being taught in schools, a stand vindicated by the judiciary. Gould’s many books popularised science, and brought complex theories requiring rigorous scientific discipline within the reach of the common reader.

Gould was one of the most influential and widely read authors of popular science of his generation. He was known by the general public mainly for his 300 popular essays in Natural History magazine, and his numerous books written for both the specialist and non-specialist. In April 2000, the US Library of Congress named him a ” Living Legend”.

Till the very last moment Stephen Jay Gould had the courage of conviction to take an uncompromising stand on truth which after all is the quintessential aspect of science.

His battle with cancer is just one example of his heroic attitude in which the dignity of one brave mam triumphed over death- even if it claims all our lives in the end.


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