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The Triumph of Stephen Jay Gould

One of the most interesting developments of the last sixty years in the popularization of intellectual concerns and higher culture has been the appearance of “public intellectuals.” They are, for the most part, academics who use a variety of means of access to a wide audience to disseminate ideas that are sometimes an integral part of their expertise, and sometimes very far from their professional field.

There were, indeed, at an earlier time, occasional purveyors of scientific ideas either to a cultured public or as part of a conscious attempt to educate the working class. Thomas Henry Huxley was not only a major popularizer of Darwin for an educated English reading public in the 1860s, but also gave workingmen’s lectures on various biological questions. In pursuit of his own ideological program, J.B.S. Haldane, one of the founders of modern evolutionary genetics in the 1930s, wrote on science for the British Daily Worker. In the more conventional press, the feuilleton pages of French and Italian newspapers have long been the outlet for occasional articles on scientific and cultural issues by prominent academics. It has only been since World War II, however, that there has arisen a moderately large class of academics for whom a major preoccupation has been the popular explication and interpretation of either their body of technical knowledge or their theories about almost anything.

The rise of the public intellectual as a regular career category, bringing esoteric knowledge and overarching theories to a wide audience, as well as fame and fortune to the practitioner, began when the most esoteric science intruded itself onto the public consciousness with a very loud bang on July 16, 1945. In high school I was a typically nerdy science enthusiast, part of a small, more or less socially isolated coterie that met after school to trade Freudian interpretations of our dreams at the local soda fountain. But when the school year began in the fall of 1946 I found myself on the assembly hall platform, a public-intellectual-in-training, explaining the mysteries of nuclear physics to an audience of the entire school.

The Manhattan Project and the development of radar during World War II provided the impetus for a major reorientation of the relationship between the state and the academic world. It became obvious to policymakers like Vannevar Bush, head of the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, that a regular major investment in scientific research would be necessary for the future security and financial prosperity of the country and that, given the competitive demands for profit, private capital could not be adequate for the purpose.1 The result has been that the annual federal expenditure for research and development (in constant dollars) has been multiplied by a factor of ten since 1947. The relevance of this immense increase in the funding of science to our understanding of changes in culture is twofold.

First, universities and colleges have been a major beneficiary of the investment in science, their total share having risen from $1.5 billion to $15 billion annually.2 About one third of the funds do not go directly into particular scientific research, but are paid to the universities and colleges as overhead (“indirect costs,” in the official jargon), which the institutions are free to expend as they wish. The result has been an explosion in the budgets of institutions of higher education, resulting in large increases in the size of their faculties and physical plants with a concomitant increase in the number of enrolled students.

In 1946 there were 125,000 faculty members teaching about two million students. At present there are about 975,000 faculty members teaching 15 million students. In 1946 only about 8 percent of the population had a college degree while now nearly 30 percent have one. This very large increase in the number of people who have been exposed to an intellectual and artistic culture has resulted in a concomitant increase in the demand for the promised fruits of that education. Having spent all those tedious hours in the required study of basic science with the promise that the effort would enable them to understand the changing world of technology and medicine, they want to have an informed understanding of those changes. What was the use of sitting through those courses in history if we cannot continue to have an explanation of present developments, or those in art if we cannot experience at first hand the objects that we saw only as two-dimensional projections on a distant screen? Anyone who does not think that there has been a huge increase in the demand for even momentary contact with the artifacts of the past should try getting into the Metropolitan Museum on a weekend.

Second, just as the demand for continued contact at some level with intellectual life has increased, so has the supply of publicly available intellectual products. Universities have publicity departments that arrange for press conferences and news releases about the latest scientific discoveries or theoretical claims of their faculty members. Television has interview series in which the ideas and findings of academics are given wide public exposure. Universities and colleges themselves have a large number of endowed public lecture series for which a relatively small number of public intellectuals are recruited as lecturers. Newspapers have regular science columns. When I was a boy The New York Times had one science reporter, Waldemar Kaempfert, who wrote an occasional column. It now has a staff that produces an entire ten-page Science Times every Tuesday. Of the twenty-two contributors to the 2007 Fall Books edition of The New York Review, nine were academics. The pages of that edition included twenty-six advertisements from university presses announcing 154 books. Nor are university presses the sole publishers of the work of professional thinkers. Really successful public intellectuals employ a literary agent who places his clients’ work with major trade publishers or may even serve as the editor of a collection of articles of his clients,3 which is then published by a major house.

There is a considerable variation in the degree to which academic public intellectuals stray from their own technical work in their public writings. Even those who begin with both feet planted firmly in their discipline find it hard to resist the seduction of generalizing, especially if they see some relevance of their knowledge to human history and social structure. E.O. Wilson, a great expert on the biology of ants and especially on ant behavior, devoted most of his famous book on sociobiology to the social behavior of “lower” animals, but his status as a public intellectual arose from his extension of those ideas and observations to claims about human nature and human social institutions. After all, Homo sapiens is an animal, so why should we not be able to understand human history as just another example of a general theory about animal behavior?

Some depart entirely from their expertise and build a public career with only the slimmest connection to their professional knowledge. It will not be obvious to the readers of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel that he is, in fact, a physiologist and an expert in tropical biogeography. Still others are public figures concerned with political questions quite separate from the content of their intellectual accomplishment. Noam Chomsky’s politics have nothing to do with his theory of universal grammar, although he might gain attention for his political arguments because we already know that he is very smart. It is even possible to become a public intellectual in science with no institutional home in a technical discipline. Richard Dawkins, who was trained as a biologist and who obviously knows a great deal about genetics and evolution, is Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford.

Of the best known and most active of active public intellectuals, only two have resisted the impulse to invent and advertise theories of human nature, its evolution, and its manifestation in history and social institutions. One was Carl Sagan, who largely avoided grand theories of humanity and, with the modesty appropriate to an astronomer, stuck to explaining the universe. The other was Stephen Jay Gould.

Gould’s activities as a public intellectual, including three hundred essays for the lay reader in Natural History magazine reprinted in nine collections, numerous interviews on television and radio, and an extremely busy schedule of invited lectures, would appear to make him typical of the successful public academic. Of his success there can be no doubt. His lecture fees were unimaginable for an evolutionist, being more in the bracket of human genome sequencers. I was once asked, in an invitation to lecture at a midwestern university, what fee I would charge. I replied that I had no particular fee, but that I would expect to be paid as much as anyone else who had done the same service. During my visit I learned that Steve Gould had lectured there and I expressed surprise that he would settle for such a small sum, whereupon my host assured me that a special endowment was tapped for Gould’s exceptional case. But he was exceptional in another way. His success as a public intellectual did not seduce him into extending himself far beyond his professional competence and rigor in the service of some general theory of human nature or history or the invention of some overarching principle or direction in the sweep of evolution.

That is not to say that he made no claims about some previously unappreciated properties of the evolution of organisms. But at all times he was tightly constrained by the physical evidence. The collected essays in The Richness of Life and the one long argument made in Punctuated Equilibrium make us think about important features of the evolutionary process that have been previously ignored or neglected. They are not meant to be the biological or historical equivalent of Unified Field Theory.

Steve Gould was a person of considerable academic breadth. He was a faculty member at Harvard simultaneously in the Departments of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, of Geophysical Sciences, and of the History of Science. His academic work in evolution was concerned with the sizes, shapes, and forms of animals and with how the functions that were served by the various bits and pieces of the body were related to their anatomical details. The title of one of his essay collections, The Panda’s Thumb, could not have been more revealing of his intellectual program. The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould combines a selection of his academic essays on various issues in evolutionary biology with a sample of his popular essays on biology taken from those he wrote over twenty-five years for Natural History.

His rhetorical powers were such that it is not always clear which, if any, of the essays in The Richness of Life are beyond the ability of a generally educated lay reader to comprehend. To some extent, of course, we owe this transparency to the good judgment of Steven Rose, the editor of the collection. One may even forgive the self-indulgence of the six introductory autobiographical essays because they contain some streaks of real meat inserted into the alternating layers of the fat of personal narrative. In particular, the essay on Joe DiMaggio’s famous record of hits in consecutive games, “The Streak of Streaks,” meant to display Gould’s knowledgeable love of baseball, contains an important lesson about long runs of events that is almost never appreciated by the layperson: “Long streaks always are, and must be, a matter of extraordinary luck imposed upon great skill.”

  1. 1

    See Science, the Endless Frontier, a report to the President by Vannevar Bush (Office of Scientific Research and Development, 1945).

  2. 2

    For a detailed analysis of these developments and their relationship to the cold war see R.C. Lewontin, “The Cold War and the Transformation of the Academy,” in Noam Chomsky et al., The Cold War and the University: Toward an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years (New Press, 1997).

  3. 3

    See, for example, What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty, edited by John Brockman (HarperPerennial, 2006).

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