The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

This View of Science

August 1, 2002

Stephen Jay Gould as Historian of Science and Scientific Historian, Popular Scientist and Scientific Popularizer

This article appeared in Social Studies of Science 32/4 (August 2002).


Science historian Ronald Numbers once remarked that the two most influential historians of science of the 20th century were Thomas Kuhn and Stephen Jay Gould. All historians are deeply familiar with Kuhn’s work and influence, and most know of the remarkable impact Gould has had on evolutionary theory through both his professional and popular works. But little attention has been paid to the depth, scope, and importance of Gould’s role as historian and philosopher of science, and his use of popular science exposition to reinforce old knowledge and generate new. This paper presents the results of an extensive quantitative content analysis of Gould’s 22 books, 101 book reviews, 479 scientific papers, and 300 Natural History essays, in terms of their subject matter (Evolutionary Theory, History and Philosophy of Science, Natural History, Paleontology/Geology, Social Science/Commentary), and thematic dichotomies (Theory–Data, Time’s Arrow–Time’s Cycle, Adaptationism–Nonadaptationism, Punctuationism-Gradualism, Contingency–Necessity). Special emphasis is placed on the interaction between the subjects and themata, how Gould has used the history of science to reinforce his evolutionary theory (and vice versa), and how his philosophy of science has influenced both his evolutionary theory and his historiography. That philosophy can best be summed up in a quotation from Charles Darwin, frequently cited by Gould: ‘All observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service’. Gould followed Darwin’s advice throughout his career, including his extensive writings on the history and philosophy of science.

In the closing decades of the 20th century, the genre of popular science writing by professional scientists blossomed as never before, with sales figures to match the astronomical six- and seven-figure advances being sought and secured by literary agents, and paid, however begrudgingly, by major trade publishing houses. Although popular science exposition has a long historical tradition dating at least to Galileo, never has there been such a market for science books, particularly works written for both professional scientists and general audiences interested in the profound implications for society and culture of scientific discoveries.1 In the 1960s, the mathematician Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man,2 based on his popular BBC/PBS documentary TV series of the same name, earned the previously unknown scientist a measure of fame late in his life. In the 1970s, the astronomer Robert Jastrow’s God and the Astronomers landed him in the chair next to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show,3 but he was soon displaced by astronomer Carl Sagan, who took the genre to new heights when he broke all records for the largest advance ever given for a first time novel ($2 million dollars for Contact, published by Simon & Schuster in 1985). Sagan’s book Cosmos (1980), based on the PBS TV series watched by half a billion people in sixty nations,4 stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for over a hundred weeks, and sold more copies to that date than any English-language science book ever published.5 So famous did he become that a ‘Sagan Effect’ took hold in science, whereby one’s popularity and celebrity with the general public was thought to be inversely proportional to the quantity and quality of real science being done.6 Sagan’s biographers have stated unequivocally, based on numerous interviews with insiders, that Harvard’s refusal of Sagan’s bid for tenure, and the National Academy of Science’s rejection of the nomination of Sagan for membership, were both a direct result of this ‘Sagan Effect’.7 But even Sagan’s popularity and book sales were exceeded in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the mathematical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, whose book A Brief History of Time set new sales standards (and expectations by publishers) for science books to come, with a record 200 weeks on The Sunday Times’ hardback bestseller list, and over ten million copies sold worldwide.8

To continue reading this article, download the 36-page PDF.

Download the PDF

topics: , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how Akismet processes your comment data.