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If you like Stephen Jay Gould's story, you might also like:
Lee Berger,
Sylvia Earle,
Jane Goodall,
Donald C. Johanson,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Ernst Mayr,
Oliver Sacks,
Richard E. Schultes,
John Sulston,
James D. Watson,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

Stephen Jay Gould's recommended reading: The Little Engine That Could

Related Links:
SJG Archive
Gould at Amazon
This View of Life
McLean v. Arkansas

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Stephen Jay Gould
Stephen Jay Gould
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Stephen Jay Gould Interview

Evolutionary Biologist and Paleontologist

June 28, 1991
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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  Stephen Jay Gould

In the field of evolutionary theory, you are closely associated with the idea of "punctuated equilibrium." Is this best understood as a departure from Darwinian theory, or an amendment to it?

Stephen Jay Gould: What we really amended was a subsidiary, but very strong, belief of Darwin's, and most of his century and most of subsequent evolutionary thought, that change in the large-scale history of life should be cumulative, slow, steady and gradual, based on the transformation of entire populations. I don't think we amended the basic statements of the theory of natural selection, which is a different area, but that's still an important part of Darwinian traditions. The theory of punctuated equilibrium argues that most species are stable, most of the time. And that's true, look at human beings for example. People always ask me, "Where is human evolution going?" But the only answer to that, and it's not a special answer for humans but for all species, is that successful species don't go anywhere. They tend to be stable for long periods of time. We've only been around for 200,000 years or so, so our period of stability is far from over, that's the normal state of species. When evolutionary change occurs, it occurs co-incident with an event of speciation, that is, a branching. And although speciation isn't overnight -- it would seem slow by the scale of our lives -- it may take thousands of years. Thousands of years, compared to the millions of years of subsequent stability, is a tiny fraction of one percent. So that even an event that is the branching of speciation, which would seem slow by the scale of our lives, in geological parlance it's instantaneous. And that's the punctuation in punctuated equilibrium. Punctuated equilibrium argues a geological perspective. Evolutionary change is concentrated in geologically sudden -- but actually slow by the scale of our lives -- bursts of speciation, and then stability's the norm for species in-between. That has a lot of implications for evolutionary theory that are quite different from conventional views, including the idea that evolutionary trends are not pushing a ball up an inclined plane by slow and steady and continuous adaptations. More like climbing a staircase, and the reasons why you take a lateral step on the staircase are very different from why you slowly and steadily push the ball up.

In proposing this, you were running contrary to the conventional understanding of Darwinian theory. Was there anything exhilarating or frightening about that?

Stephen Jay Gould: Not really. When we first published the theory in 1972, I don't think we ourselves understood the full range of its implications. It was an exciting idea for us, relevant to paleontologists, and only later on did we see the range of implications. We realized the implication with respect to Darwin's view, but we had no sense of the breadth of interpretations that could be raised within a broader scale of evolutionary theory. So in that sense, it wasn't a eureka moment. We didn't feel, nor do I today for that matter, that we had fundamentally reformed evolutionary theory. But if we had realized the full range of implications right at the beginning, we wouldn't have shrunk from them, because that's what intellectual life's all about anyway.

Could we discuss briefly your reflections on the Burgess Shale and what it represents for you?

Stephen Jay Gould: I wrote this book, A Wonderful Life, which was published in 1989, on the history of this most important fossil deposit. I haven't done personal research on it, but I think I got a perspective on what it taught us about the history of life that came from my paleoanthropological studies. The Burgess Shale's a soft-body fauna, that means we have a very rare case of the full preservation of the entire range of fossils. Most fossil localities are only hard parts, and you can't get a sense of everything that's lived there. The Burgess Shale is about 550 million years old. It comes from that crucial time right after the so-called Cambrian Explosion. In the Cambrian Explosion, about 570 million years ago, essentially all the major designs of multicellular life made their appearance on earth for the first time. It was a very accelerated burst of evolution. It wasn't overnight, it's millions of years, but even millions of years are just a geological minute compared to the history of life, which runs for billions.

The traditional view of the history of life is that everything moves up and out, that you start from a few simple things and you move up and out to more complex things. Under that view, the history of life is progressive and predictable, and humans or something like us would eventually emerge. And that's a comforting notion. The Burgess Shale really proves its falsity, because the great surprise of the Burgess Shale -- and by the way, the Burgess Shale was discovered in 1909 but interpreted very conventionally. The man who first found these organisms just shoehorned them all into modern groups and described them as simple, primitive, precursors of forms that came later. But they have been intensively restudied by a team of British paleontologists over the last 25 to 30 years, who've completely inverted this interpretation and shown that the Burgess Shale is not a few simple precursive things that came later, but actually represents an enormous initial explosion of evolutionary diversification. So that in fact, there's more anatomical diversity in the Burgess Shale than there are in all the world's oceans today. The history of life is a reduction of initial possibilities to just a few surviving groups. Now, each of these surviving groups may generate millions of species, like the insects, but they don't, again, produce fundamentally new anatomical and body plans, so that in fact the history of life has been limitation. Now you could give a conventional argument to that and say, "All right, there was 100 and only ten survived, but those ten were predictably superior, so there still is a progressive directionality to the history of life." But in fact, without going into details, a strong argument can be made that the reduction of 100 initial possibilities to ten or so was the analogue of a bingo game, a grand-scale lottery. In fact any ten of the 100 could have made it. If you could rewind the tape of life, erasing what actually happened and let it run again, you'd get a different set of ten each time. There are 17 trillion different combinations of 10 that you can take from a group of 100. So if the lottery model is right, any lineage that exists on earth now is lucky to be here, in that sense that it's one of the survivors of the great Burgess Shale lottery. Of course we're one of those lineages, we're not separate from that reinterpretation. So under this reinterpretation inspired by the Burgess Shale, we -- along with all other lineages -- are lucky to be here in that sense. Most subsets of survivors in these hypothetical replays would not include the lineage that gave rise to us.

Looking back, what do you think have been the greatest achievements in your career?

Stephen Jay Gould: I'm not going to be 50 for another few months, so I think I can be spared the need to do such large-scale retrospectives, but in a smaller sense...

I have wanted to be a paleontologist since I was five or six years old. I had a very imperfect conception of what it was when I was five. I thought it meant going out West and collecting dinosaur bones all your life. But sometimes I look back and say, "My goodness, I actually did it." And I've been successful enough at it, and I've enjoyed it as much as I thought I would, and it's as fine a field as I've ever hoped. So it's very satisfactory.

How did you become interested in paleontology at such an early age?

Stephen Jay Gould: There are several answers to that. One is the five-year-old's answer. You go to the Museum of Natural History and the dinosaurs are so awesome, in the literal meaning of that word. That word's been corrupted by kiddie culture in America today to mean anything that's a little bit bigger then average, but I mean awesome in the old sense of the term. So that's a five-year-old's answer, it's a perfectly legitimate one. I guess the adult's answer grows right out of that.

The history of life over three-and-a-half billion years is one of the quintessentially fascinating intellectual questions. It's more then an intellectual question, it relates to so many of the deep issues that are bound to fascinate any curious person, not all of which are answerable by science at all, with questions like, "Why are we here on this earth? What are we related to? How was the earth built? What has its history been through time? What's been the pageant of change over this immense span of years that have elapsed since the beginning of life?" In that sense paleontology has a great advantage over many fields. It has that intrinsic fascination that will inspire any curious person with a strong interest.

Can you describe that moment as a five-year-old when you were at the Museum of Natural History and it struck you that this is what you wanted to do?

Stephen Jay Gould Interview Photo
Stephen Jay Gould: Everybody thinks that's such an interesting apocalyptic moment. If you look at most professions, and ask people why they got into it, they'd probably say, "I was in college, I got fascinated and kind of wandered into it." Now if you ask paleontologists that, you'd get a very different distribution. First of all, you get a lot of people who got into it just for exactly that reason, they wandered into a geology course that was fascinating. But you find a very strong group who were dinosaur nuts as kids. Either they were rural, country kids who collected fossils in the backyards or the local streambeds, or they were city kids, like me, who went to museums and saw dinosaurs. So even though the story seems to fascinate a lot of people, it's the most ordinary thing in the world, because there are so many paleontologists who got into their interest as a child through going to museums. It's the main reason for my commitment to museums.

My father was a soldier in World War II and I didn't see him for a couple of years. So when he came back, his mode of re-acquaintance was to take me to every interesting place in New York City, and the Museum of Natural History was of course on the agenda. So it must have been some time in 1946, when I was four or five -- maybe '47, I'm not sure -- and we went to the Museum of Natural History and I took one look at the dinosaurs and they were just so interesting. You ask why. You and everyone asks always why kids are so fascinated with dinosaurs. I don't really know the answer to that, but it certainly seems persistent. A friend of mine is an eminent child psychologist. He once gave an answer, which may be a little oversimplified, but I think is basically pretty good. He says, "Why are kids fascinated with dinosaurs? That's simple: big, fierce and extinct," which they certainly are. Maybe that's all it was. But I remember standing under the tyrannosaurus, and it's pretty big even today -- but when you're five, it's a lot bigger -- and a man sneezed, and I thought the tyrannosaurus had come to life and was about to devour me. But at that moment, the fear -- I just let fascination creep in.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

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