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The Punctuated Politics of Stephen Jay Gould

October 31, 2003

Science and Culture in Evolutionary Theory

This article Rethinking Marxism Vol. 15, No. 4 (October 2003).

We live in the Age of Science. Scientism is our world-view, our mythic story about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. As such, scientists are our preeminent storytellers, the mythmakers of our epoch. Prominent among them are such cosmologists and evolutionary theorists as Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Edward O. Wilson, and Richard Dawkins, whose books are read by professionals and the public alike, with spectacular advances and (publishers hope) matching sales that reflect the rise of a scientistic literati, where it is now chic to have read (or at least to have on your coffee table) their works.

Stephen Jay Gould has been a highly successful product and producer of this salubrious arrangement between scientists, agents, publishers, and readers. When Gould died on 20 May 2002, it was something of a cultural anomaly in that it was marked by a level of media coverage atypical for scientists. But Gould was no typical scientist. Indeed, in many respects his life was bigger than life. In only six decades he penned twenty-three books, published over five hundred scientific papers, wrote over one hundred book reviews, produced three hundred consecutive Natural History essays, and composed countless op-ed pieces and letters to the editor. Along the journey he accumulated copious awards, including a National Book Award for The Panda’s Thumb, a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Mismeasure of Man, and the Phi Beta Kappa Book Award for Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, while he was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Wonderful Life (on which Gould commented “close but, as they say, no cigar”). Forty-four honorary degrees and sixty-six major fellowships, medals, and awards bear witness to the depth and scope of his accomplishments in both the sciences and humanities: Member of the National Academy of Sciences, President and Fellow of AAAS, MacArthur Foundation “genius” Fellowship (in the first group of awardees), Humanist Laureate from the Academy of Humanism, Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Fellow of the European Union of Geosciences, Associate of the Musée National D’Histoire Naturelle Paris, the Schuchert Award for excellence in paleontological research, Scientist of the Year from Discover magazine, the Silver Medal from the Zoological Society of London, the 06 RRMX15-4 Shermer (JB/D).fm Page 501 Friday, October 31, 2003 11:58 AM 502 SHERMER Gold Medal for Service to Zoology from the Linnean Society of London, the Edinburgh Medal from the City of Edinburgh, the Britannica Award and Gold Medal for dissemination of public knowledge, Public Service Award from the Geological Society of America, Anthropology in Media Award from the American Anthropological Association, Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers, Distinguished Scientist Award from the University of California at Los Angeles, Skeptic of the Year from the Skeptics Society, and a Festschrift in his honor at Caltech. He even has a Jupiter-crossing asteroid named after him (“Stephengould,” as by IAU convention), discovered by Gene Shoemaker in 1992.

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