MONDAY, 3 MAY 2010“Science is not a heartless pursuit of objective information. It is a creative human activity, its geniuses acting more as artists than as information processors.”
In 1946, between visits to Grant’s Tomb and the Statue of Liberty, five-year-old Stephen Jay Gould first walked into the American Museum of Natural History. The young New Yorker, led by his father, gazed in wonder at the museum’s great Tyrannosaurus rex; a twenty-foot-high monstrosity that sprang to life in his vivid imagination. As they exited into Central Park, Gould, still awe-struck, announced that his future lay in palaeontology. And thus the path of one of the great scientific minds of the 20th century was set.
Gould was a larger-than-life intellectual who, while being one of the most well-known scientists in the world, took an active interest in his social and cultural surroundings. His curiosity led him to engage in political, artistic, and athletic endeavours that were avoided by many of his colleagues.
Born in Queens, New York, to a poor Jewish family, Gould’s childhood was humble yet enriching; it was an upbringing he was proud of. His father, a court reporter, often espoused Marxist ideology in their small borough home. This created an environment in which scepticism and suspicion of authority were encouraged, while prejudice and hypocrisy were derided, moulding Gould’s intellectual character and shaping his values. During his childhood, his twin obsessions of dinosaurs and baseball occupied much of his time. His father would frequently remind him that the declarations of five-year-olds were not binding and that a career in professional baseball was more difficult to attain than it might seem – or indeed in palaeontology for that matter. Despite these warnings against disappointment, Gould went on to become a distinguished Harvard professor with over 100 honorary degrees, and a part-time baseball analyst.
As his academic stature increased, Gould also became recognised for his interests outside of science. For a 1984 documentary, Gould and his son spent an afternoon playing catch with his childhood hero, Joe DiMaggio. This inspired him to write frequently on the structure of baseball, particularly about its statistical anomalies and his beloved New York Yankees. His essay The Streak of Streaks, explaining the incredible statistical significance of DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, became a classic, and led him to be featured as an analyst in the documentary Baseball. As Gould’s health deteriorated in the late 1990s, his then wife, Rhonda Roland Shearer, bought him a device that allowed him to follow games no matter where he was. He could often be found checking the scoreboards between lectures. Weeks before he died, Gould was still working busily on his next book about baseball.
Gould’s passion for baseball was matched by his enthusiasm for the arts. His social circle was dominated not by scientists, but by artists. As an adult he was also a science fiction film fan, although Gould often complained about their mediocre portrayal of science and poor plots, as well as being an avid collector of rare antique books and textbooks. He was an opera enthusiast and often sang with the Boston Cecilia Chorus. During the Arkansas Creation Trial in which he was testifying against creationism, a junior lawyer broke into a rendition of Amazing Grace, whereupon Gould picked up the tune and outshone everyone. But when he came to the line about worshipping God for 10,000 years, he looked at his associates, an embarrassed grin spread across his face, and as so often happened in Gould´s company, the silence was broken with a chorus of laughter.
His upbringing and beliefs made Gould a champion for numerous causes.Throughout the 1960s, he could be found on the picket lines of the civil rights movement, organising protests in the US and the UK. In his book, The Mismeasure of Man, Gould passionately attacks racism and racist theories of intelligence, something that Gould and his father had fought against since his youth. Gould also appeared in a Canadian courtroom to voice his support for the medical use of marijuana, an extremely controversial stance at the time.
Gould’s scientific writing was infused with moral concern, often articulated through artistic references that he felt could best convey the essence of human weaknesses and virtues. His Natural History columns, later reprinted in nine volumes, incorporate a phenomenal number of literary, athletic, philosophical and foreign language references. One page could easily contain a Latin proverb, a Shakespearean quote and a film review. The Telegraph described Gould’s penmanship as featuring “baseball metaphors lurking in the shadows of medieval cathedrals, the better to illustrate an arcane point about fossils.” Gould saw the world through one integrated lens and could inspire those around to experience that same intellectual harmony, however briefly.
Although he majored in geology, Gould also studied history and philosophy extensively, becoming fascinated by human language and architecture. During his life, he studied and gained conversational knowledge in over ten languages, not including the numerous pidgin languages he dabbled in. Gould’s curiosity and passion for new experiences frequently led him across oceans and into disparate communities, from upscale Parisian neighbourhoods to the most remote villages in South America. He could even give in-depth tours of foreign cities he had never visited before. Rita Colwell, then director of the National Science Foundation, was once pulled away from a Lisbon conference by Gould for an impromptu personal tour of local cathedrals. His knowledge of architecture and infectious enthusiasm turned potentially mundane church visits into Colwell’s fondest tour memory.
For his students, Gould was a Harvard treasure – his lectures on evolutionary theory and paleontology were packed with undergraduates of all disciplines. His entertaining public demeanour, so influenced by his Jewish upbringing in Queens, led to journalists dubbing him ‘Mr. Evolution’. In a typical New Yorker accent, with its sharp ‘A’s and twangy ‘O’s, he would smile and gesture wildly in front of a rapt audience of first-year students, frequenting tangents that he felt were more relevant than genetic mutation was to 18-year-olds. His talks would include cartoons, jokes, riddles, and baseball facts, punctuated with an occasional dismissal of his ‘stuffy’ and ‘short-sighted’ scientific colleagues. Visiting Stanford University in 1998, Gould regaled a packed audience with a discussion about the interaction of art and science. He talked about Edgar Allan Poe’s book on molluscs and Leonardo da Vinci’s use of water imagery in the Mona Lisa. He had the unique quality of never dumbing down science, but rather making students feel as though they were sitting in a leather chair beside him, in a mutual learning process that was as enlightening for the instructor as for the student.
Gould died in his SoHo apartment from his second bout of cancer in 2002, surrounded by his beloved collection of books, stacked so high that a multi-storey ladder was needed to reach them. With the dogged determination displayed throughout his life, Gould was singing, lecturing, writing and watching baseball until two weeks before he passed away. He may be one of the few scientists whose death was mourned as much by Shakespearean scholars, baseball players and artists as it was by the scientific community. Like the twenty-foot T. rex that shaped his life story, Stephen Jay Gould was a giant; a man who loved science, writing, family, baseball, and the arts, and somehow – almost as if he were an evolutionary impossibility himself – found a way to conquer them all.
Taylor Burns is a Part IIA PPSIS student concentrating in Psychology