By Susie Davidson
NEW YORK - Stephen Jay Gould, a Harvard paleontologist and evolutionary biologist known for his modifications of Charles Darwin’s theories, died this past Monday of cancer at age 60, in his home in New York. He had known since 1981 that he had abdominal mesothelioma, a rare, lethal cancer associated with asbestos exposure.
Among the most well known and most widely read scientists of our day, Gould made great contributions to evolutionary theory, as well as the philosophy and history of science.
At Harvard, where he was a professor since the age of 26, he was most recently the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology as well as a Professor of Geology, and was also the curator for Invertebrate Paleontology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. He was a Visiting Professor at NYU as well.
Gould also sang every Monday night for many years with the Boston Cecilia choir.
The author of Natural History magazine’s “This View of Life,” his 300 consecutive monthly columns, written from 1974 to 2001, were known for their ability to communicate his own imaginative sense of curiosity to readers in a scientific mode. “I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History,” collected these essays and includes details from his life, including the story of his Hungarian grandfather’s journey to America (which ended with the words used in the book’s title). Gould also wrote over 20 best selling books and approximately 1000 scientific papers, on everything from snails to baseball to Puritan theology. Earlier this year, his 1500-page “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory,'' which summarized his life’s work, was published.
A New York City native, Gould, the son of Jewish Marxist parents, graduated from Antioch College and received a Ph.D. from Columbia in 1967. He identified himself as an agnostic Jew. Although he would openly state that evolutionary biology said nothing about the existence of G-d, he didn’t seem to hold much stake in a designed evolutionary system, or the human race at all, for that matter. "Humans are not the end result of predictable evolutionary progress,” he wrote, “but rather a fortuitous cosmic afterthought, a tiny little twig on the enormously arborescent bush of life, which if replanted from seed, would almost surely not grow this twig again."
In March 1997’s “Natural History”, he wrote: “Science and religion are not in conflict, for their teachings occupy distinctly different domains.” He saw distinct roles for each field, and viewed each as equally important.
“The lack of conflict between science and religion,” he wrote, “arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise — science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives. The attainment of wisdom in a full life requires extensive attention to both domains — for a great book tells us that the truth can make us free and that we will live in optimal harmony with our fellows when we learn to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.”
Among the numerous awards received by Gould were the MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship, the Medal of Edinburgh, and the Silver National Medal of the Zoology Society of London.
Gould leaves his wife, Rhonda Roland Shearer, his two sons from a prior marriage, a stepdaughter and stepson.
In a statement released by Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, he said “The Harvard community and the world of science have lost a brilliant scholar whose research helped redefine our notion of who we are and where we came from.''