"Zen teaches nothing; it merely enables us to wake up and become aware. It does not teach, it points." ~D.T. Suzuki

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Gould-en Heart

Stephen Jay Gould
September 10 1941 - May 20 2002
Years ago (circa 1989) Dr. Gould was invited to speak in the William Osler Series of talks at McGill University. I was just starting out as an undergrad at Concordia U at the time. Having read Ever Since Darwin, as well as having read his other books, I was also a subscriber to Natural History magazine just for his articles, so I was eager to hear him lecture in person. The lecture was amazing, yet, my girlfriend at the time and I along with some classmates, watched in shock as one woman stood up in the middle of the lecture and pointing a finger, started ranting and berating Gould (“Show me a tenth of eye Stephen Jay Gould… blah, blah, blah). Gould never lost his cool and simply but politely reminded the woman that everyone had come to hear HIM talk and not HER… So would she please SIT DOWN. She kept on going and security eventually escorted her out and his talk continued. But not without a good laugh.

After the lecture, Dr. Gould hung out at the podium taking questions and what not, from a group of people gathered around him. My girlfriend knowing how keen I was, asked why I didn’t go down and join the group. She said, “This is a great chance for you to go and shake his hand.” In my youth I guess (I don’t know, I just didn’t like the groupie scene. It really turned me off.), I insisted “No thanks. I don’t want to shake his hand as just another 'fan'. I’d rather finish my studies and earn his handshake as a colleague.”

We left soon after that and I kicked myself all the way home. For years I struggled with the feeling that I was too proud and stubborn for missing an opportunity to let him know his work was appreciated.

Forward a few years later (circa 1993) and I was a graduate student. As fate would have it, this time Dr. Gould was invited to lecture by Concordia. After the lecture, The Biology Graduate Association (of which I was Co-treasurer) had invited him to a wine and cheese at our building across the street. Of course there were neo-Darwinists, Modern Synth and Dawkins fans in our dept. So you can imagine it was an amusing evening with much great discussion. At some point Dr. Gould and I got to talking alone and eventually I told him about the McGill lecture years before and the conversation I had with my girlfriend . Well, he slowly gave me a big smile and said “Peter, after talking with you tonight, I consider you a colleague...Put'er there..” He extended his hand, took mine and shook it vigorously. . .

I can't put into words what that meant to me.

And.. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't on the verge of tears... I believe he was a man to be admired as much for his generosity and heart as for his mind and his work.

My cherished souvenirs of that night we first met, was a signed copy of Wonderful Life, our conversation...
but most of all was that handshake and his calling me a colleague. A Gould-en heart.

Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941 – May 20, 2002) was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation. Gould spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In the later years of his life, Gould also taught biology and evolution at New York University.

Gould's most significant contribution to evolutionary biology was the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which he developed with Niles Eldredge in 1972.The theory proposes that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability, which is punctuated by rare instances of branching evolution. The theory was contrasted against phyletic gradualism, the popular idea that evolutionary change is marked by a pattern of smooth and continuous change in the fossil record.

Most of Gould's empirical research was based on the land snail genera Poecilozonites and Cerion. He also contributed to evolutionary developmental biology, and has received wide praise for his book Ontogeny and Phylogeny. In evolutionary theory he opposed strict selectionism, sociobiology as applied to humans, and evolutionary psychology. He campaigned against creationism and proposed that science and religion should be considered two distinct fields (or "magisteria") whose authorities do not overlap.

Gould was known by the general public mainly from his 300 popular essays in the magazine Natural History, and his books written for a non-specialist audience. In April 2000, the US Library of Congress named him a "Living Legend".

© 2013 MU-Peter Shimon


  1. Great tribute, Peter. As you know, Dr. Gould was one of my favorites.

    Tom Thompson

  2. Thanks for giving us this Wonderful Life of SJG.

  3. Wonderful Life, well done, Peter!


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