Stephen Jay Gould, perhaps the world's best-known evolutionary biologist, died yesterday in Manhattan, of cancer. He was 60. Gould helped shape modern paleontology and evolutionary biology and through his prolific writing served as evolution's foremost ambassador to the public.
Born in 1941 in New York, Gould's childhood fascination with dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History led him to a career in paleontology that would revitalize that field and ignite constructive debate among scholars over the way evolution proceeds. A taxonomic expert on land snails of the Bahamas, Gould's encyclopedic learning (and voluminous writing) extended from the history and philosophy of science to art and literature to baseball.
As a scientist, Gould challenged the view that evolution is driven overwhelmingly by the gradual action of natural selection. With paleontologist Niles Eldredge, he began to argue in 1972 that the fossil record shows long periods of stability punctuated by rapid intervals of change. Later, he and geneticist Richard Lewontin challenged the notion that all traits could be ascribed to selection, pointing out that, like ornate but nonfunctional spandrels between the arches of a building, many traits may simply be unavoidable byproducts of functionally important traits. And he maintained that selection among species--not just among individual organisms--drives large-scale evolutionary trends. Along the way, Gould's provocative ideas and rhetorical writing generated plenty of controversy. Just weeks before his death, Gould saw publication of his book The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, a 1400-page tome that ties together the strands of his work and thought.
Gould "helped bring paleontology into the mainstream of evolutionary biology [and] brought a questioning approach" to areas of evolutionary biology that needed it, says evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma of the State University of New York, Stony Brook. "He did the field enormous good."
But it was Gould's success in popularizing science that truly set him apart. Through 25 years of monthly columns in Natural History magazine, many books of collected essays, and numerous public appearances, Gould became for much of the public the face of evolutionary biology. He was, as one critic grudgingly put it, "America's evolutionist laureate."
Futuyma's review of Gould's magnum opus in the 26 April issue of Science
Links to Gould's books, book reviews, interviews, and more
Quotes from and links to Gould's work