Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist and biologist who passionately criticized the misapplication of science to characterize Jews and others as inferior human beings, died Monday at the age of 60.
Gould, who died of cancer in his New York apartment, was a Harvard professor since 1967 and prolific essayist, earning a National Book Award and a MacArthur "genius" grant along the way. His monthly columns for Natural History magazine from 1974 until 2001 made him one of the world's most well-known scientists among the non-academic community.
Gould frequently referred to himself as a "Jewish agnostic." He was considered by many to be both brilliant and arrogant, and he was also a talented singer who regularly practiced with a Boston chorus and an able linguist who took pride in his ability to read sources in their original languages.
He was also a near-fanatical Yankee fan who often treated readers to scientific analyses of baseball statistics, or dropped references to ballplayers into his scientific writings. Regarding a question of race, he once wrote "'What Italian American player hit more than forty home runs for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1953?' The answer is 'Roy Campanella,' who had a Caucasian Italian father and a black mother, but who, by our social conventions, is always identified as black."
Gould was best known within the scientific world for his theory of punctuated equilibrium. He and colleague Niles Eldredge proposed in 1972 that, contrary to traditional Darwinian thought, evolution was not a gradual process but occurred intermittently and suddenly, interspersed by long periods of near stasis.
This theory is not universally accepted, but it revolutionized evolutionary science.
Gould's reach extended far beyond academia. Through his dozens of books and his myriad essays on subjects as far-ranging as biographies of Victorian scientists, the dangers of creation science or the decline of the .400 hitter in baseball, he brought science to the layman.
His lauded 1981 work, "The Mismeasure of Man," explains how jingoism, eugenic theories and blatantly biased intelligence tests were used to justify xenophobic restrictions on immigration in the United States after 1924.
These restrictions, Gould noted, kept Jewish refugees out during the 1930s as the scourge of anti-Semitism swept across Europe.
"We know what happened to many who wished to leave but had nowhere to go. The paths to destruction are often indirect, but ideas can be agents as sure as guns and bombs," he wrote.
His criticisms of scientific attempts to validate the notion of biological determinism — the belief that individual differences are biologically caused and, therefore, unchangeable — had a personal origin.
"All my grandparents were immigrants to America, and in the group of Eastern European Jews whom [eugenicist H.H.] Goddard and company would have so severely restricted," he wrote.
The dedication of "The Mismeasure of Man" read: "To the memory of Grammy and Papa Joe, who came, struggled, and prospered, Mr. Goddard notwithstanding."
Gould's writings earned him a good deal of fame — how many other paleontologists appeared as themselves on "The Simpsons"?
His stature in both the scientific and general communities also led to numerous courtroom appearances, in which he testified about the validity of evolutionary science. An ardent foe of anti-evolution forces and creation scientists — whom he regarded as disingenuous impostors — he earned the nickname "the bulldog of evolutionary biology."
In addition to his science writings, Gould also wrote about his past as a civil rights activist and his leftist New York Jewish upbringing — a childhood that left him disconnected from religious Judaism.
"Religion is an intriguing phenomenon that everyone should know about because it's played such a vital role in human history," he once told the Forward newspaper. "It just doesn't make a lot of sense to me personally."
Religion and science, Gould maintained, were not competing forces, and one could simultaneously be a dedicated evolutionist and a religious believer. Even the pope, he pointed out, had issued a bull validating evolution.
His writings were collected in numerous best-selling books, including "Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes" and "Wonderful Life." His opus, the 1,433-page "The Structure of Evolutionary Theory," was published earlier this year. Gould — who refused to use a computer and punched out all of his countless papers, essays and books on a rickety old typewriter — spent more than 20 years toiling on the book.
Gould was born in 1941 in Queens and traced his love of science to an excursion he took as a young child with his father to the American Museum of National History in Manhattan.
"I dreamed of becoming a scientist, in general, and a paleontologist, in particular, ever since the Tyrannosaurus skeleton awed and scared me," he wrote.
Gould is survived by his second wife, Rhonda Roland Shearer, and by two children from his first marriage, Jesse and Ethan. He was a trustee of the Alexandria Library in Egypt. Contributions may be sent to the Alexandria Library Scholars Copyright Fund, care of Rhonda Shearer, 62 Greene St., New York, NY 10012.