Stephen Jay Gould was born in 1941 in New York City, the son of a court stenographer. On a trip to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, Gould saw his first dinosaur, a twenty-foot-high tyrannosaurus. “As we stood in front of the beast,” he recounted, “a man sneezed; I gulped and prepared to utter my Sherma Yisrael. But the great animal stood immobile in all its bony grandeur, and as we left, I announced that I would be a paleontologist when I grew up.”
Since then Gould has become a world-renowned paleontologist and writer. For over thirty years, he wrote the column “This View of Life” for Natural History magazine, in which he demystified academic science for a widespread audience. His ability to make biology relevant to the “here and now” was paramount to his success and popular following. His 1980 book The Panda’s Thumb sold more than a million copies in North America alone. Gould explores topics which range from the paper wrapper of a drinking straw to a small tropical snail called the Cerion; he speaks as emphatically about Joe DiMaggio as he does about Darwin.
As a scholar, Gould developed and influenced crucial debates of the biological and geological sciences. In Wonderful Life (1989), he examined rare fossils found in the Canadian Rockies’ Burgess Shale region, arguing that these fossils represent the “road less taken” in the history of life. His book Questioning the Millennium (1997) discusses the human need to impose “arbitrary demarcations” upon the irregularities of the universe.
Through his research Gould became a leading thinker on theories of evolution, devoting much of his writing to his views on this topic. His theory of “Punctuated Equilibrium” showed that evolution does not have to proceed at a snail’s pace, but can occur relatively quickly when given the opportunity. For example, when the dinosaurs and most forms of life became extinct 65 million years ago, small, burrowing mammals survived and evolved into modern day mammals. Their evolution sped up because of that sudden event. He believed that evolution does not progress smoothly and gradually, but rather that it proceeds in fits and starts and is often determined by random, chance events.
Gould has written hundreds of essays, reviews, and articles. He was a dynamic lecturer and has been praised by Publishers Weekly as a writer who “artfully transports readers through the complex and enchanting realms of the natural world.” Gould served as Professor of Zoology and of Geology at Harvard, where he gained a reputation as one of its most visible and engaging instructors.
Stephen Jay Gould died in May, 2002.
Excerpt from the essay “The Glory of His Time and Ours” that appeared in The Lying Stones of Marrakech (2000)
In our sagas, mourning may include celebration when the hero dies, not young and unfulfilled on the battlefield, but rich in years and replete with honor. And yet for me, the passing of Joe DiMaggio has evoked a primary feeling of sadness for something precious that cannot be restored—a loss not only of the man, but also of the splendid image that he represented.
I first saw Joe DiMaggio play near the end of his career in 1950, when I was eight and Joe had his last great season, batting .301 with 32 homers and 122 RBIs. He became my hero, my model, and my mentor, all rolled up into one remarkable man. (I longed to be his replacement in center field, but a guy named Mantle came along and beat me out for the job.) DiMaggio remained my primary hero to the day of his death, and through all the vicissitudes of Ms. Monroe, Mr. Coffee, and Mrs. Robinson.
Even with my untutored child’s eyes, I could sense something supremely special about DiMaggio’s play. I didn’t even know the words or their meanings, but I grasped his gracefulness in some visceral way, and I knew that an aura of majesty surrounded all his actions. He played every aspect of baseball with a fluid beauty in minimal motion, a spare elegance that made even his swinging strikeouts look beautiful (an infrequent occurrence in his career; no other leading home run hitter has ever posted more than twice as many lifetime walks as strikeouts or, even more amazingly, nearly as many homers as whiffs—361 dingers versus 369 Ks. Compare this with his two great Yankee long-ball compatriots: 714 homers and 1330 Ks for Ruth, 536 homers and 1710 Ks for Mantle).
His stance, his home run trot, those long flyouts to the cavernous left-center space in Yankee Stadium, his apparently effortless loping run—no hot dog he—to arrive under every catchable fly ball at exactly the right place and time for an “easy” out. If the sports cliché of “poetry in motion” ever held real meaning, DiMaggio must have been the intended prototype.
* * * *
One afternoon in 1950, I sat next to my father near the third base line in Yankee Stadium. DiMaggio fouled a ball in our direction, and my father caught it. We mailed the precious relic to the great man, and sure enough, he sent it back with a signature. That ball remains my proudest possession to this day. Forty years later, during my successful treatment for a supposedly incurable cancer, I received a small square box in the mail from a friend and book publisher in San Francisco, and a golfing partner of DiMaggio. I opened the box and found another ball, signed to me by DiMaggio (at my friend’s instigation) and wishing me well in my recovery. What a thrill and privilege—to tie my beginning and middle life together through the good wishes of this great man.
Selected WorkThe Lying Stones of Marrakech (2000) Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (1999)Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (1998)Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown (1997) Full House: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin (1996)Eight Little Piggies (1994)Bully for Brontosaurus (1992)Wonderful Life (1991)An Urchin in the Storm (1989)Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle (1988)The Flamingo’s Smile (1987)Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History (1984)The Mismeasure of Man (1983)The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (1983)Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History (1980)
LinksSalon.com interview with SJGAnnOnline SJG biography page1977 NYTimes interview with SJG