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Gouldiana Rising

Warren D. Allmon, Patricia H. Kelley, and Robert M. Ross, eds., Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on His View of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 400 pages, $34.95, hardcover.

Richard York is co-editor of Organization & Environment and is associate professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. He is coauthor (with John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark) of Critique of Intelligent Design (Monthly Review Press, 2008) and has published several dozen articles and essays on various topics, including the environment, science, and political economy. He is working on a book (with Brett Clark) examining the work of Stephen Jay Gould that will be published by Monthly Review Press in 2010.

Stephen Jay Gould, best known to the general public for his nearly three decades of regular essays published in the popular magazine Natural History, was prolific and, although he always emphasized that he was a tradesman, specializing in paleontology and evolutionary theory, he was nonetheless a polymath, demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of art, literature, philosophy, history, and a variety of sciences, both social and natural. The vast body of work he has bequeathed to the literate public—the Republic of Letters, as he affectionately called us—is filled with gems of insight, fascinating observations, and no shortage of controversy. No one who has read Gould with care can avoid noticing his abiding love for learning and teaching, his unbridled enthusiasm for grappling with nature’s mysteries, and his fascination with humanity in all of its many forms. In many ways, Gould’s writing was deeply personal, demonstrating one man’s struggle to understand the natural world and our place in it. However, in other ways, Gould, the man, remained elusive and inaccessible to those who only knew him through his writing.

The wonderful collection of essays reflecting on Gould’s view of life, Stephen Jay Gould,edited by his former students, Warren Allmon, Patricia Kelley, and Robert Ross, presents a variety of insightful assessments of his work, while also giving us a glimpse of the man himself through the eyes of people who knew him well—his students and close colleagues. The contributors to this volume variously address Gould’s views on punctuated equilibrium, hierarchical levels of selection, systematics, ecology, religion, pedagogy (including his own approach to teaching and mentoring), and other aspects of his thinking. All the authors show a clear affection for Gould and an admiration for his accomplishments. However, none are servile followers, unwilling to criticize (Gould would have admired them for this). Thus, this volume is not, as the editors note in their preface, an attempt at hagiography, but rather, a serious engagement with Gould’s intellectual legacy.

All the essays in this volume are well worth reading. However, Warren Allmon’s long chapter, “The Structure of Gould,” is particularly fine. He notes that, although Gould covered a large swath of intellectual territory, his work was unified by a few key themes, particularly relating to the nature of historical processes and general explanative principles. Gould had a carefully thought out and coherent worldview that unified his extensive body of work. He was profoundly interested in historical contingency, hierarchical processes, structural constraints, and the tempo of change, and one or more of these themes are apparent in nearly all of his writings. Allmon not only demonstrates a keen understanding of Gould’s worldview, but also makes some very telling observations about Gould’s personality. He notes, for example, that Gould created many of his own problems—particularly the scathing criticism he received from some sectors—because he liked to make bold claims and enjoyed the controversy he generated by so doing. For example, he criticized the modern synthesis—the theoretical union of multiple fields in biology that formed the core of mid-twentieth century neo-Darwinian orthodoxy—for what he saw as its narrow adaptationism. His advocacy for a more pluralistic theory of evolution (which recognized, for example, structural constraints) raised the hackles of many scientists and spurred a small anti-Gould industry. Allmon’s chapter is remarkably comprehensive in its coverage of Gould’s main ideas; no small feat in light of the fact that Gould produced over 800 distinct publications in his lifetime (a complete bibliography of Gould’s work is presented in the final chapter of the book—a great service to Gouldian scholars).

The book is one of the first important works in what may someday be an extensive field of Gouldiana. During his lifetime, of course, Gould’s work inspired a great deal of commentary, but the inevitable posthumous reassessment is only beginning. Elisabeth Vrba and Niles Eldredge, two of Gould’s closest collaborators, edited a special issue of Paleobiology in 2005, which contained some excellent research and analyses on Gouldian topics. It is a valuable collection for paleontologists, evolutionary theorists, and Gouldian scholars, but it is somewhat less accessible to the general reader than Allmon, Kelley, and Ross’s book. A collection of Gould’s work, The Richness of Life,edited by Paul McGarr and Steven Rose, recently appeared in which Rose, a neuroscientist, leftist, and political ally of Gould, authored an introduction that contains some discussion of Gould’s political activism, including his involvement in Science for the People, a collective that engaged in a critique of the role of science in capitalist societies and sought to debunk biology arguments aimed at justifying social inequalities. There is a particularly touching forward to the American edition (Norton, 2007) written by renowned neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, which discusses the friendship he and Gould shared in the latter years of Gould’s life. More extensive and focused Gouldiana appears to be on the way. In the preface to the book under review here, the editors offer the tantalizing note that they know of at least one major biography of Gould that is in progress, a work that will be eagerly awaited by Gould enthusiasts everywhere.

A careful assessment of Gould’s work is important for many reasons. First and foremost, he was a talented scientist with a particularly original, lucid, and insightful mind. His theoretical and empirical work in paleontology and evolutionary biology is of direct importance to current scientific debates. However, Gould’s work is also important in a much broader sense, in that he had many insights about the philosophy, history, politics, and sociology of science, as well as thoughtful comments on more general humanistic topics. Gould was a public intellectual with a commitment to social justice and to increasing civic understanding of science. He produced exemplary works aimed at the general public, presenting a rational critique of the misuses of science. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is Mismeasure of Man (Norton 1981, revised edition 1996)*, which is specifically a critique of inappropriate uses of intelligence testing, but more generally a critique of biological determinism and the abuse of science by the right. Gould’s work represents the lofty standard of a scholar committed to rationalism and science—and no less to political engagement and the cause of equality. It is to be hoped that the rise of Gouldiana will shed further light on Gould’s science, politics, and humanism.


* For an assessment of the importance of this work, see Richard York and Brett Clark, “Debunking as Positive Science,” Monthly Review, February 2006.

2009, Volume 61, Issue 05 (October)
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