Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941 - May 20, 2002) was a New York-born American paleontologist and writer of popular science. Born Jewish, he did not formally practice any organized religion; he was to some degree an admirer of Marxism, although he was by no means a communist.

With Niles Eldredge he proposed in 1972 the theory of punctuated equilibrium, wherein evolutionary change occurs relatively rapidly in comparatively brief periods of environmental stress, separated by longer periods of evolutionary stability. According to Gould, this overthrew a key tenet of neo-Darwinism; according to most evolutionary biologists, his theory was an important insight but merely modified neo-Darwinism in a way fully compatible with what had been known before.

Table of contents
1 Gould as known to the general public
2 Gould as a biologist
3 Other topics
4 References
5 External links

Gould as known to the general public

Gould became widely known through his popular science essays in Natural History magazine and a number of books, including The Panda's Thumb, The Flamingo's Smile, Wonderful Life, and others.

Gould was an emphatic advocate of evolution and wrote prolifically on the subject, conveying an awareness of contemporary evolutionary theory to a wide audience. A recurring theme in his writings is the history and development of evolutionary (and pre-evolutionary) thinking. His early research involved the study of the fossil record of snails (detailed in another of his essays). He was also a baseball fanatic and made frequent references to the sport (including an entire essay) and a very wide range of other topics.

Although a Neo-Darwinist, his inclinations were less gradualist and reductionist than most neo-Darwinists, and he opposed sociobiology. He spent much of his time fighting against pseudoscience and creationism. Gould used the term Non Overlapping Magesteria (NOMa) to describe how, in his view, science and religion could no comment on each other's realm.

Gould was considered by some to be one of the preeminent theoreticians in his field. However, most evolutionary biologists disagreed with the way that Gould presented his views; they feel that Gould gave the public, as well as scientists in other fields, a very distorted picture of evolutionary theory. Few evolutionary biologists questions his motives, insight, or his important new ideas. However, many hold that his claims about overthrowing standard views of neo-Darwinism were exaggerated to the point of falsehood, and that his claims of replacing adaptation as a key component of natural selection were erroneous.

Gould as a biologist

The biologist John Maynard Smith wrote that Gould "is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory"; another biologist, Ernst Mayr, wrote of Gould, and those who agree with him, that they "quite conspicuously misrepresent the views of evolutionary biology's leading spokesmen."

John Tooby and Leda Cosmides wrote that "although Gould characterizes his critics as "anonymous" and "a tiny coterie," nearly every major evolutionary biologist of our era has weighed in in a vain attempt to correct the tangle of confusions that the higher profile Gould has inundated the intellectual world with. The point is not that Gould is the object of some criticism -- so properly are we all -- it is that his reputation as a credible and balanced authority about evolutionary biology is non-existent among those who are in a professional position to know."

The dispute occurred because Gould presented his ideas as a revolutionary new way of understanding evolution that relegated adaptationism to a much less important position. As such, many non-specialists became convinced due to his early writings that neo-Darwinism has been proven to be wrong (which Gould never wanted to imply); worse, his works were sometimes used out of context as a "proof" that scientists no longer understood how organisms evolved, therefore giving Christian creationists ammunition in their battle against science. Gould himself refuted some of these these misinterpretations and distortions of his teachings in later works.

Gould had a long-running feud with Richard Dawkins and other evolutionary biologists over sociobiology and its descendant evolutionary psychology, which Gould opposed but Dawkins, Dennett, Pinker and others strongly advocated, and over the importance of gene selection in evolution: Dawkins argued that all evolution is ultimately caused by gene competition, while Gould advocated the importance of higher level competition including, controversially, species selection. Many evolutionary biologists believe that Gould misunderstood Dawkins' claims, and that he ended up refuting a point of view that Dawkins had not held. Strong criticism of Gould can be found particularly in Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker and Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea; Dennett's criticism has tended to be harsher while Dawkins actually praises Gould in evolutionary topics other than those of contention.

Gould, together with Richard Lewontin in an influential 1979 paper, popularized the use of the architectural word "spandrel" in an evolutionary context, using it to mean a feature of an organism that exists as a necessary consequence of other features and is not actually selected for. The relative frequency of spandrels, so defined, versus adaptive features in nature, remains a controversial topic in evolutionary biology.

Shortly before his death, Gould published a monumental (in the physical sense) treatise recapitulating his version of modern evolutionary theory, written primarily for the technical audience of evolutionary biologists: The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2002), ISBN 0-674-00613-5.

Other topics

Gould is the author of The Mismeasure of Man, a study of the history of psychometrics as a form of scientific racism; the most recent edition includes a refutation of the arguments of The Bell Curve.


  • Ernst Mayr, Toward a new philosophy of biology, 1988 Harvard University Press, pp. 534 - 535
  • S.J. Gould, and Richard Lewontin, "The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossion paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme", Proc R Soc Lond B 205, pp. 581-598, (1979)
  • S.J. Gould (1987) The limits of adaptation: Is language a spandrel of the human brain? Paper presented to the Cognitive Science Seminar, Centre for Cognitive Science, MIT.
  • John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, Letter to the Editor of The New York Review of Books on Stephen Jay Gould's Darwinian Fundamentalism (June 12, 1997) and Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism (June 26, 1997)

External links