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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 24.3 > The Enigma of Stephen Jay Gould

The Enigma of Stephen Jay Gould

The Account of Gould’s Science and Politics Is More Complicated Than Critics Acknowledge

It has become apparent of late that people are still very polarized in their opinions of the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. On one side there are evolutionary psychologists and I.Q. researchers who hold very strong negative opinions about Gould, particularly his book The Mismeasure of Man,1 on the history of I.Q. testing and the concept of intelligence. There are also those who do not embrace Gould’s extreme position on the role of the environment in shaping human action. On the other side there are evolutionary morphologists and paleontologists who appreciate Gould’s contributions to evolutionary theory, historians of science who recognize his original contributions to the role of culture and society in the development of scientific theories, and those who feel strongly aligned with Gould’s ideas about human nature, particularly as it relates to the role of culture and society in how lives turn out. Seventeen years after Gould’s untimely death from cancer at age 61, we are seeing a resurgence of strong opinions about him and his career.

It is unfortunate that Gould’s legacy may forever be entangled with his biases, especially because his important contributions in many technical areas of evolutionary biology were not so tainted.We all have biases, of course, but Gould’s were particularly strong and unquestionably influenced some of his scientific work. Recently, the philosopher of science Nathan Cofnas collected the harshest assessments of Gould made by other evolutionary biologists to summarize the worst of what his colleagues thought of him—the most quoted being by the renowned evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith:

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 publically criticised because he is at least on our side against the creationists. All this would not matter, were it not that he is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary biology.2

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PINKER ON POST-TRUTH & REASON Steven Pinker on “Why We Are Not Living in a Post-Truth Era: An (Unnecessary) Defense of Reason and a (Necessary) Defense of Universities’ Role in Advancing it” COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Coconut Oil: Health Food or Health Hazard? by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: The Persistence of Memory… and of the Memory Wars, by Carol Tavris ARTICLES The “Lost” Tribes of Israel • The Pentagon’s UFOs How a Multimedia Entertainment Company Created a UFO News Story • The Problem with the Walking Dead And How They Flummoxed Science for Centuries • The Enigma of Stephen Jay Gould • Why the Human Brain Did Not Evolve to Accurately Represent the True Nature of Reality • Homeopathy’s New Clothes: Release Active Drugs • Pressured Apologies, False Confessions, and Witch Hunts • Two Kinds of Progressive Atheism • Surfing for Truth in All the Right Places: An Empirical Test of the Backfire Effect and How the Internet Can Reduce Anti-vaccination Attitudes REVIEWS Reviews of “A review of Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities” • “Spectacle of Illusion: Deception Magic and the Paranormal” • “The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost” • “Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture” JUNIOR SKEPTIC The Chilling, Changeling Chupacabra!