Stephen Jay Gould
Stephen Jay Gould
American Paleontologist and Educator
American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould has contributed important insights into the nature of life and evolutionary science. His theory of punctuated equilibrium posed a compelling emendation to Darwinian theories of evolution. As both a respected researcher and science popularizer, he has published many books, demonstrating a unique ability to make complex scientific data clear and entertaining to average readers and students.
Born in New York City, Gould attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he graduated with an A.B. He remained at Antioch and taught geology through 1966. His deepening interest in paleontology led him to pursue graduate work. He received his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology and paleontology from Columbia University in 1967.
Gould's next teaching assignment was an assistant professorship in the Geology Department at Harvard University, followed by an associate professorship. In 1973 he became a full professor at Harvard, where he has remained until the present.
During the 1970s, Gould developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium, a revised version of the Darwinian belief that species evolve over long periods of time. He proposed that most evolutionary change takes place in much shorter time frames—thousands instead of millions of years, and also in fairly rapid succession instead of gradual, miniscule developments.
His conclusions resulted from a research project involving West Indian land snails (traditionally slow movers). Gould moved on to other species and was particularly devoted to the theory of exaptation, which proceeds much more rapidly than adaptation. It promotes the premise that instead of slow growth changes in structures, some species used existing structures for new and constructive purposes. He continues to acknowledge that, for the most part, evolution is dependent on fundamental processes like direct inheritance, varying DNA throughout millions of years, and natural selection that includes competition for basic elements of survival: plants, water, predators, limited space (as in oceanic or continental islands), floral and fauna collapse, and inevitable ecosystem decay.
One of Gould's best-known examples of exaptation is chronicled in The Panda's Thumb, published in 1980. It graphically illustrates how the panda's wrist-bone modification, which must have been in place for some time, "suddenly" enabled the panda to strip leaves from its primary food supply: bamboo shoots. In subsequent publications, Gould used other illustrations of exaptation, such as the swim bladders in fish that kept them buoyant in water, but were readily converted into lungs for land species because of the thin flap of tissue that permitted an exchange of gases both in and out of water.
Gould's prolific writings brought him numerous awards and continuing assignments. The Panda's Thumb earned him the Notable Book Citation from the American Library Association and the American Book Award in Science in 1981. Other books that have contributed to the popularization of evolutionary biology include Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977), The Mismeasure of Man (1981), Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (1987), and Wonderful Life (1989).
Gould has been a regular contributor to Natural History magazine and many of his essays were later collected and published together. His ability to clarify difficult conceptual theories into understandable, plausible arguments has made him popular with readers from all walks of life.
In addition to his many awards and prizes, Gould is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society of Naturalists, the Paleontological Society, the Society for the Study of Evolution, the Society of Systematic Zoology, and Sigma Xi. He continues to work as a prominent paleontologist, writer, and educator in his field.