Stephen Jay Gould

I completely missed this, because I was distracted: Jerry Coyne celebrated the life of Stephen Jay Gould this past weekend — Gould’s birthday was 10 September. I did not know that. It’s the same as my wife’s! I knew there was something in the stars that attracted me to her. Of course, it’s going to be awkward now when every year on 10 September I wake up, turn to my wife, give her a kiss, and announce “Happy Stephen Jay Gould’s birthday, dear! Let’s celebrate by reading some of his essays!”

In the spirit of Coyne’s essay, I will say that I greatly appreciated the man. I didn’t know him well — I met him a grand total of twice — but I loved his essays, and they’re one of the things that inspired me to go into biology. I subscribed to Natural History magazine specifically for his column, and I let the subscription lapse after he died (I wonder how much of that magazine’s circulation was built entirely around that one author). I’ve read all of his books, even his turgidly bloated last, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory — I have to say the quality of his work declined over the years as he seemed to become incapable of editing anything, and every stray thought he had just had to go into every sentence (parenthetical asides inside parenthetical asides…yeah, that was his style).

The two great popularizers of my college years were Gould and Dawkins. I know there was some conflict, maybe even rivalry between them, but I didn’t see it. To me, Dawkins was always about clarity and a style that was always lucid; Gould was about the richness and complexity of biology, with a style that reflected that view, for good or ill.

The chief scientific influence Gould had on me was primarily through one book, Ontogeny and Phylogeny. I think it was his first book, and probably his best: he was the evolutionary biologist who really got how important development was to understanding the process. I’m sure this is partly me reading more into him, but frequently when I read his work I got the impression that there was a developmental biologist trying to emerge from the shell of the snail systematist.

I’ve still got his books on a shelf in my office, and I still read them occasionally, for inspiration. I also still use them in my classes. Just last week, I had my freshman students read “Carrie Buck’s Daughter” as part of an assignment in bioethics, which brings to mind another characteristic of Gould: he was a marvelously humane writer.

(Also on FtB)