December 21, 1999, Tuesday, Late Edition – Final

SECTION: Section F; Page 3; Column 1; Science Desk

LENGTH: 1504 words

Primordial Beasts, Creationists and the Mighty Yankees


It was a sunny afternoon in SoHo and the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould — president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Vincent Astor visiting research professor of biology at New York University and the Alexander Agassiz professor of geology at Harvard — was sitting around his loft, ruminating about the pleasures of finally living in Manhattan.

Dr. Gould, 58, has spent much of his life circling Manhattan. He grew up in 1950’s Queens in a working-class family, in a time when Manhattan was the ever-distant “city.” In 1967, Dr. Gould got his Harvard appointment, which meant, of course, living in Cambridge and being one of the few Yankees fans in all of Harvard Yard.

Four years ago, Dr. Gould, who was divorced, married a sculptor and art historian, Rhonda Roland Shearer of Manhattan, now 45, and together they set up housekeeping in SoHo, in a vast urban spread filled with Tiffany lamps, good art and first-edition scientific tomes.

In his 19 books and in essays for Natural History magazine, Dr. Gould has become perhaps the most eloquent and best-known proponent of the view that evolution and natural selection are responsible for the origin and diversity of species. But earlier this month he came under criticism in The New Yorker, which suggested that his emphasis on chance in the evolutionary process had unwittingly aided the cause of creationism. Dr. Gould declined to respond to the New Yorker article, by the journalist Robert Wright, saying that he did not believe that such personal attacks merited a response and that his work spoke for itself.

The Harvard paleontologist did, however, speak about other aspects of the ongoing political struggle between creationists and evolutionists.

Q. What was your reaction, when you first read that the Kansas Board of Education was going to make the teaching of evolution optional in biology classes?

A. That the citizens of Kansas would be profoundly embarrassed by the stupidity of the ruling and that they would vote that school board out of office the next year. The Kansas School Board’s decision is absurd on the face of it. It’s like saying, “We’re going to continue to teach English, but you don’t have to teach grammar anymore.”

But the creationists can’t do what they want to do because of the history of Supreme Court decisions. They are very restricted in terms of a legally defendable stand. This is probably the only thing they can do.

The only reason it happened is that nobody votes in a school board elections anymore. Thus, determined minorities can take over. It took this fundamentalist group three election cycles to take over in Kansas. They only have a one-vote majority, 6-4. Four are up for election next year.

The bigger dangers aren’t these legal maneuvers. It’s the thousands of teachers who are less than optimally courageous, as most humans are, who are probably teaching less evolution because they don’t want trouble. You can’t even measure that.

Q. Is creationism a uniquely American phenomenon?

A. That’s not hard to see. It just doesn’t happen any place else in the Western world. Europeans just don’t get why we have it. There are two things that European intellectuals don’t understand about Americans, I find. One was Bill and Monica, or, our obsession with it. The second is how you can possibly have an anti-evolution movement in a modern scientific country.

Q. There is a recent trend in the social sciences to go to neo-Darwinist explanations of social problems: a kind of mutant resurgence of the Social Darwinism of the late 19th century. Why has this happened now?

A. This is a conservative age and I think, it’s tempting for conservatives to argue, “Why are you calling for change or equalization when what we have now reflects the natural state of human nature?”

Also, I think, we sometimes make a misuse today of Darwin in terms of trying assuage our disappointments with some of our worst traits. That is, if we don’t like our aggressivity or our sexism, we might try to fob it off with: “Oh, well, we’re made that way. We can’t help it.”

Q. What about the appeal of neo-Darwinism to people who like their traits? The biological explanation “it’s a gene” has, for instance, become very popular with gay rights advocates.

A. Oh yeah. This is an age that largely, wrongly, think, favors genetic explanations. So it’s going to spread everywhere. But I think that’s a two-headed argument. Because if you put your eggs in that basket, then suppose it turns out that you’re wrong? You don’t want to base a defense for a defendable bit of our diversity upon its putative biological nature.

I’d rather take the point of view that it has nothing to do with the biology. It’s an ethical issue.

Q. As someone who publishes in both scientific and popular media, what’s your take on the quality of academic writing?

A. Compared to what? I don’t think academic writing ever was wonderful. However, science used to be much less specialized. There wasn’t much technical terminology, and then, most academics are not trained in writing. And there is what is probably worse than ever before, the growing use of professional jargon.

And I think it arises more out of fear than arrogance. Most young scholars slip into this jargon because they are afraid that, if they don’t, their mentors or the people who promote them won’t think they are serious. I can’t believe that anyone would WANT to write that way.

Q. Do you think your colleagues sometimes resent you because you have, horror of all horrors, penned a few best sellers?

A. Oh, sure. Anyone who has success in writing for the general public is envied. Goethe died in 1832. As you know, Goethe was very active in science. In fact, he did some very good scientific work in plant morphology and mineralogy. But he was quite bitter at the way in which many scientists refused to grant him a hearing because he was a poet and therefore, they felt, he couldn’t be serious. This is not entirely a new phenomenon.

Q. Do you write easily?

A. I don’t know what writer’s block is.

Q. What does writing do for you?

A. It’s the best way to organize thoughts and to try and put things in as perfect and as elegant a way you can. A lot of scientists hate writing. Most scientists love being in the lab and doing the work and when the work is done, they are finished. Writing is a chore. It’s something they have to do to get the work out. They do it with resentment. But conceptually to them, it is not part of the creative process. I don’t look at it that way at all. When I get the results, I can’t wait to write them up. That’s the synthesis. It’s the exploration of the consequences and the meaning.

Q. Since your marriage to Rhonda Roland Shearer, you have been living half time in New York and half in Cambridge. To what extent has this new life left you feeling split?

A. The big frustration is waiting for this decent train service between Boston and New York to start. But I like living in New York, though I don’t feel that I ever left. I grew up in Fresh Meadows, went to Jamaica High School.

Q. You didn’t go to Bronx High School of Science?

A. It was too far. I got on a bus and subway and it took me two hours to get there, and I thought, “I’m not going to spend four hours a day for the next three years on the subway.” So I went to Jamaica High School. You know, New York had a great public school system once and it will again, I trust. I feel I got a great education at Jamaica High. And P.S. 26 before that. I’m nothing but an old city kid at heart.

Q. Your recent book, “Questioning the Millennium,” was, among other things, a lengthy investigation of Year 2000 issues. Tell us, are you and Rhonda secreting bottles of water and cords of firewood for fear of what will happen when the clocks change?

A. No, there’s been a lot of attention to Y2K and a lot of testing. I don’t expect any. As a matter of fact, I will be singing in a concert of Haydn’s “Creation” in Boston on New Year’s Day. I’m going to have to get from here to there for rehearsal. I will drive up there, though.

I don’t think anything significant is going to happen. In so far that there are some worries on a global scale, the things I would worry about are places that are really cold, like northern Russia, where there could be an interruption of the electricity and heating and things like that.

The funniest thing you can say about it all is that in the year 1000, insofar as people were aware of the millennium, their fears were grander. They feared the apocalyptic revelations of Revelations. They really thought that Jesus would come again, that Satan would be bound and the world, as we know it, would end. I think it’s so amusing that in a secular age the main fear that people have is caused by a technical glitch caused by a computer misreading a date because of poor anticipation by some programmers 30 years ago.

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GRAPHIC: Photo: To Dr. Stephen Jay Gould, at his Harvard office, writing comes easily. A paleontologist, he has written 19 books, many of them best sellers. (Rick Friedman for The New York Times)

LOAD-DATE: December 21, 1999