Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Thoughts on Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) was a funny looking fellow, a combination of Fred Flintstone and John Goodman in appearance. The cartoon like image that his droopy moustache, rumpled academic clothing, and sleepy looking eyes created, however, disappeared the moment he opened his mouth. Anyone who listened to him speak more than two consecutive sentences knew immediately -- this guy was a genius.

I first met Professor Gould in the fall of 1973. I was a freshman at Harvard and had signed up for his introductory Geology course, Natural Sciences 10, or, as it was affectionately known "Rocks for Jocks".

Gould was one of the most interesting and engaging professors I ever had. A scientist who studied all sorts of odd sounding, ancient creatures, he was extremely familiar with a broad range of literature. He sprinkled his lectures with numerous references to the Bible, both the Old Testament and New Testament, leading me to conclude that he was fascinated by that book.

Later in life, of course, he would become known as an opponent to the Creationist movement popular within the "Religious Right." His relationship with the Intelligent Design movement was equally uncomfortable. Phillip E. Johnson quoted his reservations about classical Darwinism liberally in his famous book Darwin on Trial, but Gould vigorously protested that Johnson had not gotten his position right.

New York City born and bred, Gould's father was an avowed Marxist, and that philosophy must have had some influence on his son, though he would often deny that it was a political philosophy with which he had much in common.

Working on the Science, Faith, and Atheangelism chapter of Letter to an Atheist, I am thrilled to be revisiting Gould's work. Looking at his work afresh, especially in the context of the atheangelism of many of his fellow evolutionary biologists, I find myself increasingly drawn to Gould's views in a couple areas, especially in his view that science and religion are separate realms of inquiry. In this he differs from his enemy Richard Dawkins, who sees the two realms intertwined. Science, Dawkins might argue, exists to destroy religion.

Gould and Dawkins also disagreed significantly on evolutionary theory. Gould argued that Darwin's gradualism of speciation was not really reflected in the fossil record. Rather, life evolved in a sort of punctuated equilibrium, in which there would be long periods of relative "stasis" among species, followed by sudden and dramatic changes -- many existing species becoming extinct, many new species springing up.

For Dawkins, evolution is completely explained by natural selection. For Gould other developmental factors played a role.

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