Socialist Worker

Stephen Jay Gould 1941-2002

by Paul McGarr
Issue No. 1802

Stephen Jay Gould, the scientist who died last week, will be remembered for many things. He was one of the greatest ever popularisers of science, especially in his chosen field of natural history and evolution. Gould was also a lifelong fighter against racism and reactionary ideas of all kinds.

He was 60 when he finally succumbed to the cancer he had battled for 20 years. Throughout most of those years he had kept up an incredible output of writing. From 1974 until last year he wrote a monthly column in the US Natural History magazine. These essays, over 300 in all, were periodically collected and published as books.

If you have never read or understood about evolution and the debates surrounding it, Gould is the place to start. In discussing his central theme he ranges far beyond science, taking in history, art, culture and his beloved sport of baseball too. He was one of the few science writers who managed to combine popular explanation without sacrificing the richness of the science.

He said, 'I intend my essays for professional and lay readers alike.' One of my favourite collections is entitled Dinosaur in a Haystack. It contains a marvellous essay on Mary Shelley's famous novel Frankenstein and the way it has been used, and abused, to bolster reactionary views. There is also a chilling but useful essay on the Wannsee Protocol, the document heralding Hitler's 'Final Solution' in which the racial and genetic nonsense the Nazis used to justify their actions is laid out.

The battle to defend Darwin's theory of evolution against the creationists was one of Gould's lifelong passions. His ideas are summed up in the massive book The Structure of Evolutionary Theory that was published just before he died. Perhaps his best known argument is about 'punctuated equilibrium'.

He argued that evolution does not just proceed gradually. Rather he suggested there were long periods in biological history of stability, punctuated by periods of more rapid evolution.

His views are controversial, and the jury is still out on them. The debate will be settled by proper scientific evidence, but I suspect that on many key issues Gould will be proved correct.

Gould's liberal views shone through all his writings. He annoyed the right wing to the point where he was sometimes accused, falsely, of being a Marxist. At times he wandered off the track in his arguments. In one of his later books he made unnecessary concessions to religion.

Too often he overstated the role of chance that sometimes led him wrongly to deny any pattern in evolution and history. But Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, written in 1981, should be required reading for every socialist, anti-racist and fighter for women's liberation. It attacks how science has been used to justify racism, sexism and class division.

Gould shows how mainstream 19th century scientists argued that blacks were less intelligent than whites, and women less intelligent than men. The 'evidence' used to back these claims up were measurements of brain and skull sizes. Gould shows brilliantly how the prejudices of these scientists affected their work, in both crude and more subtle ways.

In the 20th century IQ tests took over from skull measuring as the favoured tool of those who argued the inferiority of black people and women. Gould again brilliantly demolishes these ideas. He also shatters the very basis of IQ tests and the talk of a single, measurable quantity called 'intelligence'.

He has played an invaluable role in the battle against those who still argue we are the prisoners of our genes.

Most of Stephen Jay Gould's books are available, although The Mismeasure of Man is currently out of print. Contact Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for details. Phone 020 7637 1848,

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Sat 1 Jun 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1802
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