The circumstances were ridiculously improbablelike the chances of Ted Williams hitting a home run in the last at bat of his long career in the majors. Stephen Jay Gould had just published two books, reflecting two sides of his professional life. One was his scientific magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, a volume of close to 1,500 pages. Here was the Gould who had influenced the field of evolutionary theory since he and his fellow paleontologist Niles Eldredge challenged the neo-Darwinian consensus in 1972 with their theory of "punctuated equilibria."
Gould and Eldredge argued that the evidence simply didn't support the model of infinitely gradual incremental change over the eons of deep time. No; while small-scale change certainly proceeded thus, the real actionthe sort of thing people have in mind when they argue about "evolution"took place in fits and starts and at various promptings outside the everyday mechanisms of natural selection: even as far outside as the impact of a giant meteor, for instance. Their theory was extremely controversial when first proposed and remains in dispute today, though subsequent evidence seems to favor Gould and Eldredge, and many evolutionary thinkers accept some variant of punctuated equilibria.
As for creationists, they liked to cite the debate as evidence that Darwinism was imploding. Alas, as usually presented, this was a gross distortiona pity, since there was an important core of truth to the notion. And that, in turn, is why many of Gould's fellow scientists never forgave him. He had provided aid and comfort to the enemy!
Then there were those who recognized that Gould was no friend to the creationists but who despised him anyway, perhaps out of sheer envy for the range of his gifts. So, most notoriously, in the pages of The New York Review of Books the British evolutionary theorist John Maynard Smith could write:
Gould occupies a rather curious position, particularly on his side of the Atlantic. Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists.
That's an interesting window into the minds of certain defenders of Darwinist dogma, assuming the whole story wasn't invented by Maynard Smith, whose argument is rather like saying that Yo-Yo Ma is popular with people who know nothing about classical music, but the musicians I take my tea with tend to see him as a barely passable cellist. (And don't you love that phrase "particularly on his side of the Atlantic"? Some Brits have never forgiven us for the Revolution.)
Maynard Smith's mention of Gould the essayist takes us to the second book Gould published this past month, I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History, marking the end of his extraordinary series of essays in 300 consecutive issues of Natural History magazinea streak that seems even more remarkable to me than Joe DiMaggio's still unbroken record hitting-streak of 56 games. This book represented the other side of Gould's professional life, as not only the best science writer in a golden age of science writing but as good an essayist, period, as to be found in our time.
And having published these two books, the summing up of a life's work, Gould died last week at the age of 60, succumbing at last to the cancer he had held at bay for 20 years. "Improbable" doesn't begin to describe it.
How fitting and yet how sad that Gould's life should end thus. He was famous for his emphasis on "contingency." While some Christian thinkers have sought to establish proof for the presence of design in the universe, Gould sought to prove that we are but a cosmic accidenta delightful accident, to be sure, despite our grievous flaws, but an accident nonetheless. Replay evolution from the start, he liked to say, and the results would probably be entirely different.
Gould had other bees in his bonnet. He was a man of strong leftist sympathies, though these seemed to become less doctrinaire as he grew older, and much of his passion for the Left seemed to grow out of the best populist instincts of that ideological bent. Hence his wrongheaded but in some ways admirably motivated book, The Mismeasure of Man, attacking widely accepted notions of the measurement and heritability of something called "intelligence."
But there is much to learn from Gould as well as much to enjoynot only his brilliant craft as an essayist, not only his theme of contingency (which we who are sure there's an ultimate design, and a Designer, still need to hear as a corrective to be worked into the design itself in a way we may never understand) and much more eluding mention here, but perhaps above all his commitment not to oversimplify reality for the sake of scoring a point, selling a book, or propping up a dead orthodoxy. Was Gould himself always true to this commitment? No, but at his best he was a model for all writers who seek to be true to the amazing and unpredictable riches of the Real.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
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Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Closing The X-Files | with the sign of the Cross. (May 20, 2002)
And the Next Thing Is | Marxism (or not). (May 13, 2002)
God Bless the Eliminator | Mother Jones magazine makes known a shocking discovery: evangelicals are sending missionaries to Muslim countries! (May 6, 2002)
'A Peculiar People' | The uniqueness of the Jews. (April 29, 2002)
'Nebuchadnezzar My Slave' | Was the Holocaust God's will? (April 15, 2002)
'In the Beginning Was the Holocaust'? | Blasphemy, rage, memory, and meaning of the Shoah. (April 8, 2002)
The Gospel According to Biff | A conversation with novelist Christopher Moore. (April 1, 2002)
Baseball 2002 Preview | Part 2: Saving the game? (March 25, 2002)
The State of the Game | After one of the best World Series ever, baseball faces a crisis. (March 18, 2002)
America's Homegrown Islamand Its Prophet | The strange story of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam and onetime mentor of Malcolm X. (Mar. 11, 2002)
'Must Be Superstition' | Rediscovering spiritual reality. (Mar. 4, 2002)
Science Holds a Meeting | A report from the annual convention of the AAAS. (Feb. 25, 2002)
Saint Frodo and the Potter Demon | The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series spring from the same source. (Feb. 18, 2002)