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Stephen Jay Gould | The Nation

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Stephen Jay Gould

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When the Kansas Board of Education voted in 1999 to remove the teaching of evolution from the state's science curriculum, most thinking Americans groaned about the growing influence of the antirational religious right. But Stephen Jay Gould, the nation's most prominent evolutionary biologist, refused to write off Kansas--or reason. He hopped a plane for the Midwest and delivered a series of speeches in which he declared, "To teach biology without evolution is like teaching English without grammar."

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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With its decision, Gould argued, "the board transported its jurisdiction to a never-never land where a Dorothy of the new millennium might exclaim, 'They still call it Kansas, but I don't think we're in the real world anymore.'" The reference to The Wizard of Oz took Gould from behind the lectern and into the thick of the public debate. That was where Gould, who died May 20 at age 60, was at his best. A paleontologist who studied the land snails of Bermuda, and a historian of science whose last book was a 1,400-page dissection of Darwinism and the evolution of evolutionary theory, the Harvard professor was secure in his academic place. But he believed that scientists also had a place in the popular discourse of the day.

Science for the People was the name Gould, Richard Lewontin and their allies gave to the magazine and the movement they forged in a post-1960s burst of optimism about the prospects of linking scientific insights and social activism. With his unique talent for explaining complex ideas through eminently comprehensible references to baseball, choral music and the shrinking size of Hershey's chocolate bars, Gould took on the yahoos who attempted to use pseudoscience to justify race, class and gender discrimination. His 1982 book, The Mismeasure of Man, gave antiracist campaigners the tools they needed to prevail in the bitter debates over inherited intelligence and IQ testing.

In the mid-1990s, when conservatives embraced sociologist Charles Murray's book The Bell Curve, which claimed that race and class differences were largely caused by genetic factors, Gould charged into the battle anew. His review of The Bell Curve for The New Yorker savaged the book for advancing racially charged theories with "no compelling data to support its anachronistic social Darwinism." As for right-wing politicos who promoted The Bell Curve, Gould wrote, "I can only conclude that [the book's] success in gaining attention must reflect the depressing temper of our time--a historical moment of unprecedented ungenerosity, when a mood for slashing social programs can be powerfully abetted by an argument that beneficiaries cannot be helped, owing to inborn cognitive limits expressed by low IQ scores."

"What made Steve different was that he didn't make a cartoon out of science. He didn't talk down to people," recalled Lewontin, his Harvard colleague and comrade. "He communicated about science in a way that did not try to hide the complexities of the issues and that did not shy away from the political side of these issues. Steve's great talent was his ability to make sense of an issue at precisely the point when people needed that insight."

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