Critical Response: Stephen Jay Gould

Scientists and Critical Response

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Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) was an evolutionary biologist and paleontologist who studied and published countless volumes on evolutionary theory and became a controversial figure in the scientific world. Early in his career he collaborated with Niles Eldredge in developing a theory of evolution that became known as Punctuated Equilibrium. Upon examining fossilized evidence, the two scientists argued that most species evolve rapidly over relatively short periods of time followed by long periods of evolutionary stability. This argument challenged the traditional Darwinian Theory of gradual and steady adaptation over long periods of evolutionary history. Gould believed this revelation challenged certain suppositions of Darwin’s, but was largely in line with Darwinian Theory. 

Gould was also critical of so-called “Creation Science” and other non-scientific attempts to explain life on earth. As a result, he coined the term “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” which suggests that science and religion should not comment on each other’s realms.  Gould is greatly admired for his prolific writings and verve in the field, where he often attempted to bring the complexities of science to a mainstream audience.  He wrote 300 consecutive essays in Natural History magazine from 1974-2001.  Some of Gould’s critics felt he was too concerned with being a celebrity, rather than a true scientist.  They imply that his high profile, which includes everything from testifying in favor of teaching evolution in public schools during the Scopes II trial in Arkansas to being a character on the Simpsons, sullies his reputation.  Despite the controversies, Gould was one of the most groundbreaking scientists of the last 50 years whose intellectual curiosity and scientific rigor is a model for students of all disciplines.


Objectivity cannot be equated with mental blankness; rather, objectivity resides in recognizing your preferences and then subjecting them to especially harsh scrutiny—and also in a willingness to revise or abandon your theories when the tests fail (as they usually do).

Stephen Jay Gould, "Capturing the Center," Natural History 107 (December 1998): 18.  
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