Monday, September 10, 2012

Happy birthday, Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould
It is the birthday of paleontologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould (1941), who wrote more than 20 popular books on such subjects as evolution, philosophy, and science history. He was also an avid collector of antiquarian books.

He taught for 30 years at Harvard University, and also at New York University. He often appeared on CNN, NBC and the syndicated Charlie Rose show. Gould, a lifelong Yankees fan, appeared in Ken Burns' PBS documentary Baseball. He also appeared on the PBS series Evolution, as well 3-2-1 Contact, the Children's Television Workshop show. He served on the CTW Board of Advisers.

Among his best known books are Ever Since Darwin (1977) and The Panda's Thumb (1980), collections of essays he wrote for Natural History magazine. The title article in The Panda's Thumb makes the case that poor design is a better argument for evolution than good design, since the panda's appendage is not a thumb at all and seems to have been pressed into service for a use (holding bamboo shoots) that a better design could perform more effectively.

In his The Mismeasure of Man (1981), Gould argues that mistakes in statistical methods and bias of scientists led to the theory of biological determinism or the notion that inherited factors alone dictate the likely behavior and intelligence of any group of human beings. Gould examined the work of renowned researchers and called into question their findings.

In Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin (1996), Gould reiterates his idea that evolution isn't necessarily headed toward progress, that organisms are as likely to simplify as they are to become more complex. He also argues that focus on the extreme value in any statistical data leads to misunderstanding. He uses the example of baseball, a favorite subject for him. The disappearance of the .400 batting average, he suggests, is not because players are getting worse. it is, rather, that players are getting better. There is less variation between the batting skills of players now than in the early days of baseball but that means it is less likely, statistically speaking, that there will be players at the extremes: in other words, .400 hitters.

Gould survived abdominal cancer in 1982, and wrote an article about it when he discovered that people with his type of cancer had a median lifespan of eight months. That meant, he wrote, that half the people would die before eight months. The other half would live longer. He determined that he would be in the second half, and after chemo treatments, made a full recovery.

Twenty years later, Gould developed lung cancer and it moved to his brain. He died in 2002 at home in a bed set up in his library, surrounded by his family and his beloved collection of antiquarian books.

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