A Kinder, Gentler Stephen Jay Gould


Short and stocky with a shock of graying black hair, he doesn’t exactly look like Woody Allen, but he shares the impish New York filmmaker’s reaction to Los Angeles.

“When do my feet get to touch the ground?” grumps Stephen Jay Gould as his chauffeured car crawls through traffic toward yet another appointment. Gould, the noted evolutionary biologist, paleontologist and essayist, is here to promote his latest book, “Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin” (Harmony Books), in a daylong whirl of interviews, appearances and signings. The book, his 15th, is filled with the usual Gould excursions into history, pop culture and sports, including a lively discussion of why there are no more .400 hitters in baseball.

But “Full House” isn’t exactly a light read. Some 15 years in gestation, it is a major statement of Gould’s views on the history of life. Attacking the commonly held notion of evolution as a relentlessly upward climb with humans at the top of the heap, he says we’re merely “a tiny twig, born just yesterday in an enormously arborescent tree of life that would never produce the same set of branches if grown from seed.”


And if you don’t believe that, he adds, remember that after some 3 1/2 billion years of terrestrial life, there are some 1 million kinds of bacteria and only 4,000 or so species of mammals.

It’s a favorite theme since he made his debut as a monthly columnist in Natural History magazine 22 years and more than 250 essays ago. So, you’d think the 55-year-old Gould would enjoy this break from teaching and writing to talk up his new opus.

No way. At station KPCC in Pasadena, he’s already snapped at Larry Marino, host of the “Talk of the City” call-in show. “Please don’t give me that ‘shut up and go shorter’ look,” he lectures Marino during a break. “You have an intelligent public out there, and they can take two or three minutes of uninterrupted explanation.”

At USC, he categorically forbids a photographer to shoot his picture during a lunchtime talk and won’t relent even during a subsequent book signing at the USC bookstore. “It’s distracting for both me and the audience,” he insists.

And before taping an interview for KCET’s “Life and Times,” he orders the makeup person to do no more than a minimal brushing of his shadowy jowls.

These outbursts aren’t all that surprising, of course. Harvard’s illustrious professor of zoology--a scholar who has won a MacArthur “genius” fellowship and many other accolades, including a National Book Critics Circle Award (for “The Mismeasure of Man” published by Norton in 1981) and a American Book Award (“The Panda’s Thumb” [Norton, 1980])--is widely known for having a short fuse.

Gould admits he’s “a tough cuss,” a kid from Queens who was called “fossil face” by his schoolmates because even then he was crazy about dinosaurs. But he can also be congenial, earthy and self-effacing--a softer side possibly enhanced by his recent marriage to New York sculptor Rhonda Shearer and his new part-time life in Manhattan’s arty SoHo district. (He now spends only half the year teaching at Harvard.)

Spotting an auto supply store on Colorado Boulevard, he’s reminded of an old joke. “Ever hear the one about the three Jewish guys, Feinstein, Slansky and Katz, who invented a car air conditioner and tried to sell it to Henry Ford, a notorious anti-Semite?” he says, grinning. “Ford bought it from them but would only let them put their first names on it: Norm, Hi and Max.”

He also confesses to a weakness for mystery writers--his favorite, Dorothy Sayers--and gobbles up the sports pages for the baseball scores. It’s a passion he displays at USC by flashing a slide of New York Yankees star Joe DiMaggio on the screen and identifying him as “the greatest living American” for his “impossible” feat of hitting in 56 straight games in 1941.


Observing Gould’s gentler, ordinary-guy self, you wonder if that New York subway surliness isn’t protective armor like the shell of the West Indian land snails, genus Cerion, which he’s made his life’s study.

After all, it helps to don a little shielding if you’re going to do battle in a scholarly arena where the combatants go at each with the toothy furor of Tyrannosaurus rex.

His latest tussles have been with sociobiologists--lately reborn as evolutionary psychologists. They contend that many puzzling aspects of human behavior, such as differences between the sexes (the nurturing inclinations of women, for example, and the power drives of men) aren’t the product of education or culture, but are characteristics inherited from our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Gould pooh-poohs such biological determinism--the idea that we’re governed only by our “unalterable nature,” he says--and dismisses Robert Wright’s popular book “The Moral Animal” (Pantheon, 1994) as the “most absurd example” of efforts to defend it.

Still, he has made peace with at least one of his foes, Edward O. Wilson, sometimes called the father of sociobiology and Gould’s neighbor at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, who, not incidentally, is also a much admired writer. (His books “The Naturalist” [Island Press, 1994] and “The Diversity of Life” [Norton, 1993] both won Pulitzer prizes.)

Gould’s toughness has probably served him best in his personal life, which has handed him at least two setbacks: the birth of an autistic son and the discovery in 1982 that he had a deadly asbestos-linked cancer, abdominal mesothelioma, with a likelihood of surviving only eight more months.

As an “intensely private person,” Gould bars any probing into family matters such as the split-up with his wife of 30 years. “If you do that,” he warns his questioner, “this whole thing is off.”

But he does talk, albeit reluctantly, about his encounter with the disease, which his doctors defeated with surgery and chemotherapy. What bolstered him through that ordeal, he says, was his realization that the medical odds--"eight months’ median mortality"--represented an average for all cases, not the chances of a single individual, which can vary all over the lot.

It’s a statistical lesson he goes on to apply to evolution, contending that life’s rich variety (his “full house”) is a far more meaningful measure of biological trends than isolated examples, such as the emergence of man.

“We’re latecomers on this planet,” he says, “while the bacteria have been around forever and probably will still be here when the sun explodes.”