Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary theorist at Harvard University whose lectures, research and prolific output of essays helped to reinvigorate the field of paleontology, died today at his home in Manhattan. He was 60 years old. The cause was adenocarcinoma, his wife, Rhonda Roland Schearer, said.
- dave 5-20-2002 11:33 pm

he must have been in my mothers class. they were born two days apart and went to the same high school.
- dave 5-20-2002 11:36 pm [add a comment]

The Times obit gives more space to Gould's controversies and detractors than I would have expected; maybe some enemies have an editorial conduit? Speaking as a layman, he was an important figure for me, and I guess great popularizers will always arouse mixed feelings among the professionals. As an interpreter, promoter and revisionist of evolution, he bears better comparison with T. H. Huxley than with Darwin himself. I can't judge his science, but at least he was willing to confront problems with the orthodoxy, without jettisoning basic Darwinian principles. Beyond that, he was a genuine man of letters, something that science always needs more of. His wide-ranging mind may have overreached here or there, but even then he at least offered something to argue against, rather than the unassailable aridity of so much science writing. He was at his best when extrapolating from things he loved, like baseball or music. Certainly he loved dinosaurs, often recounting his first exposure to them as a child at the American Museum of Natural History, which inspired his whole career. He represents a generation of paleontologists motivated by this love, rather than by desire for the sheer power of knowledge. A fond heart can lead a sober head to places mere rationality would never think of looking into. When news of his illness came it sounded bad, and I'd have thought a ten-year reprieve was more than could be hoped for, but it seems to have passed quickly. My favorite book of his was Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle, an almost hermetic treatment of the "discovery" and representation of time's vastness. On the geologic time scale a human life is momentary, but not inconsequential, and its achievements may last longer than death.

I discovered Gould due to a childhood interest in natural history, which reasserted itself when I got out of college. At the time, I found myself feeling like I'd been taught nothing of use, and I had to go back to the beginning, as literally as possible. Trying to find my way back to the present, I ended up in an imaginal landscape that somewhat resembled the American West. It was populated by Gould's dinosaurs, reconfigured by the earthworks of Robert Smithson, and filled with the dustbowl music of Woody Guthrie. The sort of place where some "primitive" or ascetic might go in search of a mystical experience. The trip culminated in a film project Steve Doughton and I did in the early 90's, along with a lecture on the artistic representation of prehistoric life and its parallels with religious art. Gould made some of the same points several years later, in one of his more problematic books, but I didn't hold that against him. I never actually got out west, but the idea of that landscape, with places like Hell Creek, Montana, site of the first T. Rex discoveries, was significant to me. Now, another decade on, and I really am about to go out there. Don't know if I can recover what was, ten years ago or ten million, but I figure there's something out there; beyond the present; beyond the past; beyond the future…

- alex 5-21-2002 9:38 pm [add a comment]

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