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Sharing the wonders of science: a profile of Stephen Jay Gould


April 19, 2000
Web posted at: 2:02 p.m. EST (1802 GMT)

Stephen Jay Gould's latest collection of essays, "The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History," is now in bookstores. CNN Interactive contributor Stephanie Bowen recently spoke with the author about his career and philosophy.

(CNN) -- After a lifetime of studying the past, Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould knows there is no predicting the future. With his final column for Natural History Magazine fast approaching, he says he hopes to leave his readers with "an appreciation of the complexities of the history of life and the beauty of evolutionary theory."

In the mid 1950s, 5-year-old Gould was lured into science by a dinosaur skeleton at the Museum of American History in New York City, where he grew up. Although he says this is typical of paleontologists, his interest in science matured from a childhood fascination into a groundbreaking career.

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Gould is the leading expert on the fossil land snails of the West Indies. He is also well known for his theory that evolution occurs in short growth spurts (thousands of years) connected by long periods of stability, which departs from Darwin's theory that evolution is a slow process (millions of years) of natural selection.

Accessible science

What distinguishes Gould from most other scientists is that he has taken his work beyond academia and into everyday life.

In his column "This View of Life," which has appeared every month for almost 30 years, Gould takes certain aspects of biology that appeal to a general audience and makes them relevant to the here and now.

In biography pieces for instance, Gould's uses his unique style to condense the key contributions of influential figures into a single essay. He also uses his own seemingly mundane experiences to make larger points.

In his latest column he explores the search for the meaning of life by telling us how he celebrated the new year. As he was singing Franz Joseph Haydn's "The Creation" for a New Year's performance in Boston, Gould's thoughts wandered from the beginning of time, through the age of Enlightenment, to the scientific foundations of evolution and then to the ever-present search for meaning through the creation myth -- all in the context of how Haydn came to write his masterpiece.

In a brilliant conclusion, Gould acknowledges the complexities of the task before us. "We need to find tools even beyond the integration of science, morality, and the other separate patches that construct what I like to designate as the coat of many colors called wisdom," Gould writes.

Exploring ethical debates

Gould is firm in the belief that science does not have moral implications, but rather raises them. "Although science can produce technologies which bring the world to a place where you have to wrestle with certain moral questions for the first time, science can't answer those questions," he says.

For instance, science makes cloning and genetic engineering possible, but, he maintains, "human beings have to play a role in the ethical debates, not as scientists, but as human beings."

While the cloning debate is intangible to most of us, Gould says issues like abortion and euthanasia can be clarified by a firm "understanding of the science that raises the ethical issue in the first place."

And fostering that understanding, says Gould, is one of the reasons he has taken science out of the university classroom and into the glossy pages of a magazine.

"Most Americans are very poorly trained in science, which is our fault. People aren't incapable of understanding, most people are pretty interested," says Gould.

He says if you ask most people whether evolution or creation should be taught in classrooms, they'll say to teach both. Gould believes that many people just don't understand the science that supports evolutionary theory.

"They don't understand that it's no threat to religion," says Gould. "It shows their good will, if anything," he adds, that so many want both ideas to be given equal time. He says the Bible is not a natural history document and was never meant to be.

The beauty of unpredictability

On a recent book tour for "Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown," Gould discussed a theme he considers to be the cornerstone of his work: the beauty of unpredictability.

"It is hard to claim there's any grand theme of predictability running through life," says Gould. "After all, once you learn that mammals spent two-thirds of their existence as tiny little animals being dominated by dinosaurs and that dinosaurs only disappeared because there was this large extinction triggered by a pretty random extraterrestrial impact, it makes it very hard to see mammalian triumph and eventual domination of anything foreordained or predictable."

But Gould doesn't see this as a reason to shirk accountability. "Because we are here by the unpredictable good fortunes of history doesn't really mean that there's no way in which we can define a meaning for our lives. ... It doesn't mean ... we don't have ethical requirements, because ethics are human systems anyway."

Amazingly optimistic about the human spirit, Gould sees science as one part of the puzzle. "The best a scientist can ever say is that there is enough contingency in randomness, in complex systems that ... it's explicable just not predictable."

Just like a 5-year-old at a dinosaur museum becoming a famous paleontologist. Explicable but not predictable. Thank goodness for the beauty of a random universe.

Stephanie Bowen is a graduate student in writing at the University of Southern California.

Passion for travel keeps him going
January 5, 1999

Stanford Presidential Lectures: Stephen Jay Gould
Natural History magazine

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