Reflections on the thoughts of a grand mind: A tribute to Stephen Jay Gould 1941-2002

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May 2002 was not a great month for me. The sudden death of my father on the 18th, at the young age of 66, was the result of an asbestos-related illness, contracted through his employment in a brake factory. There will be no punishment for the CEO, the board of directors, the regulators who sentenced him to nearly 20 years of slow suffocation as the deadly fibres eroded his lungs. In the Catholic schools I attended, the nuns told me that the wages of sin was death. No! For many working people, the wages of working life is death.

My distress was heightened when, two days later, I woke to the news that Stephen Jay Gould, easily one of the greatest scientific thinkers of the twentieth century, had died, also from an asbestos-induced illness, at a mere 60. Still, in a small way, it snapped me out of my personal grief. At a time when the world is being terrorised by a small clique of religious zealots, Stephen Gould’s rational voice was one we could not afford to lose in the struggle to counter the warmongering drivel spewed out by chief zealot George W. Bush — and those who pull his strings.

The would-be planetary dictatorship that is the Bush Cabinet has a deliberate policy of alarming the U.S. population with vague security alerts, military aircraft patrolling over large cities and frequent references to “homeland defence.” Mainly aimed at silencing dissent, this policy has two other benefits for the U.S. Far Right. It encourages the xenophobia that underpins bigotry and drives people back into the arms of the churches as they seek refuge from the big bad world. Of course Bush and Co. are not the only fear-mongers on the planet. The outrageous treatment of Arab and other Muslim refugees by Australia’s government springs immediately to mind. Playing the race card is an easy, dirty trick for politicians who are only too aware that baseless fears about non-white invasion lie just under the surface in this outpost of white Europe.

Gould debunks “scientific” racism. The Mismeasure of Man, Gould’s brilliant 1981 critique of “intelligence” testing, should be on the syllabus of every senior high school student, and in every home library. In it, Gould demolishes, line by line, any scientific basis for both race and intelligence as “real” social categories. The genetic difference between any human being and any other is a fraction of one percent. Pigmentation is, well, skin deep and reflects nothing more than regional variation from the ancestral type. And yes, our predecessors were all people of colour. All methods of attempting to discern “inherent” hierarchical differences among people — from the bizarre practice of weighing brains to IQ testing — fail at the most basic level of science. They are biased, both in the sense that they are skewed to produce a particular result and because the idea of difference arises from the racist ideology of the testers. Scientists who look for racial differences do so in the expectation they’ll find them. In many cases, data was manipulated to “discover” variation where none exists. Thus the Nazis could measure people’s heads in the “sure knowledge” that this would distinguish “Aryans” from “inferior” races. It was bunkum, of course, but highly deadly bunkum.

In the mid ’90s, Gould reissued Mismeasure with a new introduction aimed at countering The Bell Curve, a popularist “new” study about how Blacks are “more stupid” than Whites. Gould was not shy in mentioning his own bias. The Bell Curve served to perpetuate the oppression of people of colour. Race is an invention of eighteenth century white scientists already convinced of white supremacy. Differences in skin pigmentation are a function of geography and ethnicity — they tell us no more about variation in the human species than does language. It may sound a little odd to define something seemingly as “innate” as skin colour to be a product of social interaction. But it is just a result of the partnering decisions of our parents and their parents, in the context of the society in which they lived.

The politics of evolution. One of the frightening aspects of the phoney “war on terrorism” and its propagandists is that Christian fundamentalism will get a huge boost. The peculiarly backward version of Christianity that prevails in the U.S. is one of the cornerstones of white supremacism, because it defines “God’s own people” as white. It is also inward-looking and superstitious. Some 45% of the U.S. population believes in the Judaeo-Christian creation myth contained in the book of Genesis. It is semi-official policy in many states that evolution is “just a theory” believed by “some scientists.” In Kansas, the teaching of evolution is banned. Look for an expansion of this anti-scientific backlash, and soon. And expect an upsurge in racially motivated attacks on people of colour.

Creationism is a political tool of the Right Wing, something of which Gould was always mindful. He was happy to attack them politically through scientific argument. It was not only that the data supported him, it was that Gould’s Jewish and Marxist background led him to side with the oppressed against the powerful. For him, a just society was one which encouraged rational debate over dogma, and sought to educate, rather than brainwash, its citizens. One that balanced the rights of the individual with the need to build social cohesion. It was not that he, as a secular Jew, was particularly opposed to religious belief as such. After all, he was a scientific advisor to the Pope! It was the political intervention of the religious Right in places where it should not go that he disliked. Religious fundamentalism in the U.S. has long sought to impose on the population a form of martial theocracy. Its opposition to evolution is part of that project, and for 30 years, Stephen Gould had argued long and loud the case for science over superstition, from small town meetings to the U.S. Supreme Court.  It is in the belly of the beast that his voice will be most sorely missed.

The scientist as dialectician. Gould’s most significant contribution to evolutionary theory and biology in general was the idea of “punctuated equilibria,” which he developed in conjunction with Niles Eldridge in 1972. Gould said that Eldridge came up with most of the hypothesis, and that its dialectical nature had little to do with his father’s Marxism. Nevertheless, it is a scientific theory with very big political ramifications, and it’s as significant as Gould’s destruction of racism.

It is hardly the fault of Charles Darwin that some of his emphasis on incremental change as the driving force of natural selection was misused and distorted. The gradual, linear progression from primitive to modern, from amoeba to European man, suited the prejudices of the scientists of the day, because, as the leading thinkers of Europe, they “knew” they were naturally superior. And it suited racist gradation of “racial types” and the sexist definition of women as “intellectually inferior.” Darwin’s groundbreaking explanation of natural history was twisted into a convenient ideological bulwark of capitalism, even a justification for Nazism.

But, as Gould showed, the geological and fossil records do not support gradual, linear evolution. At the core of the Gould/Eldridge theory is a much more likely, materialist explanation. For a long period (“equilibrium”), life continues in “stasis” until, in a short geological time, there is an explosion (“punctuation”) of rapid change, followed by a new stasis. There are at least five examples of mass extinction and/or rapid diversification in the fossil record. It’s a classic dialectical series — thesis, antithesis, new thesis. Evolution is, in fact, revolutionary.

Another consequence of the theory is contingency.  Searching for our ancestors in the dawn of multicellular life we find one or two rare species. What’s the odds of them giving rise to us 600 million years later? Sixty-seven million years ago, what were the odds of a tiny shrew-like mammal surviving the meteor impact which wiped out most species? Gould asks us to rewind the tape and consider what new stories may be recorded on it. A tiny wormlike creature fails to survive, and all of us — from fish to kangaroo to the awful George W. Bush —vanish without a trace.

Capitalists may not like their removal from the pinnacle of evolution, but that’s life! There is no room for presumptions of superiority. Not on grounds of race, nor gender, nor species. We are what we are and that’s that. Which makes it all the more important to preserve our society, and our planet, with all its fragile, wonderful life, from those who threaten them. For that reason, it’s past time that we punctuated capitalism’s equilibrium!

Gould was not a Marxist. Still, it is the work of scientists such as he that will form the basis of our rational management of the planet once we’ve removed the exploiters. Revolution is, after all, an idea, as well as a mass movement.

A final, personal thank you. Soon after my father died I rediscovered a place we used to fish, nearly 35 years ago. I just sat and  listened — to the wind in the trees and the songs of the dinosaurs! You see, a meteor got T. Rex, but not all saurians were big and fierce. Before the fatal impact, a small saurian species with feathers for warmth gave rise to another species that used them for flight. Its descendants survived the cataclysm — and flourished. Australia has about 600 species of bird-dinosaurs. This never fails to make me smile, and gives me immense optimism for our survival, and the survival of life on Earth. And I learned this from Stephen Jay Gould, who left the world a far better place than he found it.

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