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Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941 - May 20, 2002) was an 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. He was born in New York.

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, this was an important insight, but it merely modified neo-Darwinism in a way fully compatible with what had been known before.

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. He was a baseball fanatic and has included mentions (including an entire essay) on that topic. His early research involved the study of the fossil record of snails (detailed in another of his essays).

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 pseudo-science and Creationism.

Gould is 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 both public, as well as scientists in other field, 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 aboute overthrowing standard views of neo-Darwinism were exagerrated to the point of falsehood, and that his claims of replacing adaptation as a key component of natural selection were erroneous.

Biologist Maynard Smith writes that Gould "is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory". Biologist Ernst Mayr writes about 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 write that: "Indeed, 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 an revolutionary new way of understanding evolution that relegated adaptionism 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, who favor sociobiology and see evolution as occurring on a number of levels, both on the level of species, the level of individuals, and on the level of genes. Gould views it more as a struggle between species. Many evolutionary biologists believe that Gould misunderstood Dawkin's claims, and that he ended up refuting a point of view that Dawkins had not held.

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.

Controversially, Gould also popularized the use of the word "spandrel" in an evolutionary context.

References

Mayr, Ernst Toward a new philosophy of biology, 1988 Harvard University Press, pp. 534 - 535

Gould, S.J. (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)

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