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Stephen Jay Gould, Evolution Theorist, Dies at 60

By CAROL KAESUK YOON

Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary theorist at Harvard University whose research, lectures and prolific output of essays helped to reinvigorate the field of paleontology, died yesterday at his home in Manhattan. He was 60.

The cause was cancer, said his wife, Rhonda Roland Shearer.

One of the most influential evolutionary biologists of the 20th century and perhaps the best known since Charles Darwin, Dr. Gould touched off numerous debates, forcing scientists to rethink sometimes entrenched ideas about evolutionary patterns and processes.

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One of his best known theories, developed with Niles Eldredge, argued that evolutionary change in the fossil record came in fits and starts rather than a steady process of slow change.

This theory, known as punctuated equilibrium, was part of Dr. Gould's work that brought a forsaken paleontological perspective to the evolutionary mainstream.

Dr. Gould achieved a fame unprecedented among modern evolutionary biologists. He was depicted in cartoon form on "The Simpsons," and renovations of his SoHo loft in Manhattan were featured in a glowing article in Architectural Digest.

Famed for both brilliance and arrogance, Dr. Gould was the object of admiration and jealousy, both revered and reviled by colleagues.

Outside of academia, Dr. Gould was almost universally adored by those familiar with his work. In his column in Natural History magazine, he wrote in a voice that combined a learned Harvard professor and a baseball-loving everyman. The Cal Ripken Jr. of essayists, he produced a meditation for each of 300 consecutive issues starting in 1974 and ending in 2001. Many were collected into best-selling books like "Bully for Brontosaurus."

Other popular books by Dr. Gould include "Wonderful Life," which examines the evolution of early life as recorded in the fossils of the Burgess Shale, and "The Mismeasure of Man," a rebuttal to what Dr. Gould described as pseudoscientific theories used to defend racist ideologies.

Dr. Gould was born on Sept. 10, 1941, in Queens, the son of Leonard Gould, a court stenographer, and Eleanor Gould, an artist and entrepreneur. Dr. Gould took his first steps toward a career in paleontology as a 5-year-old when he visited the American Museum of Natural History with his father.

"I dreamed of becoming a scientist, in general, and a paleontologist, in particular, ever since the Tyrannosaurus skeleton awed and scared me," he once wrote. In an upbringing filled with fossils and the Yankees, he attended P.S. 26 and Jamaica High School. He then enrolled at Antioch College in Ohio, where he received a bachelor's degree in geology in 1963.

In 1967, he received a doctorate in paleontology from Columbia University and went on to teach at Harvard, where he would spend the rest of his career. But it was in graduate school that Dr. Gould and a fellow graduate student, Dr. Eldredge, now a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, began sowing the seeds for the most famous of the still-roiling debates that he is credited with helping to start.

Studying the fossil record, the two students could not find the gradual, continuous change in fossil forms that they were taught was the stuff of evolution. Instead they found sudden appearances of new fossil forms (sudden, that is, on the achingly slow geological time scale) followed by long periods in which these organisms changed little.

Evolutionary biologists had always ascribed such difficulties to the famous incompleteness of the fossil record. But in 1972, the two proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium, a revolutionary suggestion that the sudden appearances and lack of change were, in fact, real. According to the theory, there are long periods of time, sometimes millions of years, during which species change little, if at all.

Intermittently, new species arise and there is rapid evolutionary change on a geological time scale (still interminably slow on human time scales) resulting in the sudden appearance of new forms in the fossil record. This creates punctuations of rapid change against a backdrop of steady equilibrium, hence the name.

Thirty years later, scientists are still arguing over how often the fossil record shows a punctuated pattern and how such a pattern might arise. Many credit punctuated equilibrium with promoting the flowering of the field of macroevolution, in which researchers study large-scale evolutionary changes, often in a geological time frame.

In 1977, Dr. Gould's book "Ontogeny and Phylogeny" drew biologists' attention to the long-ignored relationship between how organisms develop that is, how an adult gets built from the starting plans of an egg and how they evolve.

"Gould has given biologists a new way to see the organisms they study," wrote Dr. Stan Rachootin, an evolutionary biologist at Mount Holyoke College. Many credit the book with helping to inspire the new field of evo-devo, or the study of evolution and development.

Dr. Gould and Dr. Richard Lewontin, also at Harvard, soon elaborated on the importance of how organisms are built, or their architecture, in a famous paper about a feature of buildings known as a spandrel. Spandrels, the spaces above an arch, exist as a necessary outcome of building with arches. In the same way, they argued, some features of organisms exist simply as the result of how an organism develops or is built. Thus researchers, they warned, should refrain from assuming that every feature exists for some adaptive purpose.

In March, Harvard University Press published what Dr. Gould described as his magnum opus, "The Structure of Evolutionary Theory." The book, on which he toiled for decades, lays out his vision for synthesizing Darwin's original ideas and his own major contributions to macroevolutionary theory.

"It is a heavyweight work," wrote Dr. Mark Ridley, an evolutionary biologist at University of Oxford in England. And despite sometimes "almost pathological logorrhea" at 1,433 pages, Dr. Ridley went on, "it is still a magnificent summary of a quarter-century of influential thinking and a major publishing event in evolutionary biology."

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Terrence McCarthy/The New York Times
Dr. Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary theorist who helped reinvigorate the field of paleontology, died at age 60.

Recent Articles

Today Is the Day: An Op-Ed Piece by Stephen Jay Gould (October 23, 1997)

Breaking Tradition With Darwin: A New York Times Magazine profile of Stephen Jay Gould (Nov. 20, 1983)

Review: 'Ever Since Darwin' and 'Ontogeny and Phylogeny' by Stephen Jay Gould (November 20, 1977)


A Time of Gifts (September 26, 2001)


Stephen Jay Gould Wants an Evolution Revolution (March 17, 2002)




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