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Finding freedom in the bugs

In a rare, exclusive interview Stephen Jay Gould, science's great communicator, talks to Tom Wilkie
On Wednesday night, a capacity crowd filed into the Victorian Gothic fantasy of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington to hear a scientific lecture by Stephen Jay Gould. This academic, the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard University, spends his time studying snails and fossils. But it was not for this that the crowds came. Professor Gould is also the foremost writer about science in English today and a man who, although one of Darwinism's most stalwart defenders, has sparked controversy and debate among scientists about exactly how evolution works.

Over the past 20 years, Professor Gould has become consummate in writing about science at a popular level. And his science sells around the world. The most recent collection of his essays, Eight Little Piggies, spent four weeks on the Sunday Times bestseller lists. In 1991, his Wonderful Life won the UK Science Book Prize. Significantly, Gould is the only scientist chosen by Penguin to appear in its commemorative Penguin 60s series - a collection of four essays entitled Adam's Navel.

But when I met Gould on the morning after his lecture, the talk was not just of popular science, but of how the palaeontologists have been excluded from biology's "High Table". Most palaeontology is concerned with small creatures, invertebrates, similar to today's insects and spiders - even bacteria. "Invertebrate palaeontology had been exciting in the early 19th century," Gould says, "when fossils were the key to to working out the timescales of the earth's history. Then it became almost a technical craft, a device for classifying rocks." Darwin, he points out, chucking in a casual reference to a specific chapter in Origin of the Species, did not need any fossil record to develop the theory of evolution.

In the Sixties, Gould spearheaded a group of what might be called "radical palaeontologists" who challenged the prevailing Darwinian orthodoxy. They were not disputing the fact of Darwinian evolution by natural selection, but they queried how it happened.

Ranged against Gould's camp are the "ultra-Darwinists", exemplified by that other great master of popular scientific prose, the Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins. The engine driving evolution, according to Dawkins, is the imperative felt by "the selfish gene" to transmit as many copies of itself as possible for the future. Only the genes matter; individual animals are but vehicles for them, while species are an irrelevance.

Enter the radical palaeontologists. This explanation, they say, is not sufficient to make sense of the wonderful diversity of the living world today. Gould explains: "If a mass extinction wipes out half the organisms on earth - and if it is a bolt out of the blue that you can't prepare for [like the asteroid impact which ended the dinosaurs] - you may get through for other reasons than natural selection." Mass extinctions turn the survival game into a random lottery - no longer a competition in which the fittest survive.

It is perhaps not surprising then that the thesis of Wednesday's lecture, was that, nearly 140 years after the publication of Origin of the Species, Darwinism "is so radical an argument that even today we have not made our peace with it".

Radicalism suits Gould. A respectable, established academic - tomorrow he celebrates his 54th birthday - he comes from a liberal Jewish New York background. He once wrote that he had "learned his Marxism at his Daddy's knee". When, in the mid-Eighties, the Natural History Museum mounted a fresh exhibition on evolution, it was denounced as a subversive Marxist conspiracy because it drew partly on Gould's scientific work. His focus on rapidity of change, rather than gradual evolution, was seen as bearing the taint of revolutionary ideology.

Nobody thought to point out the ideological basis of Darwinism itself - it is the economics of Adam Smith appropriated to the natural world. The irony for Gould is that this works in nature but "laissez-faire cannot work in human society... Nature is not efficient or moral by our standards. It's a crummy system."

Darwin is almost a cult figure today; Marx, in contrast, has been eclipsed by events. But Gould still defends his contemporary relevance: "The unworkability of the governments that invoked Marx's name," he says, "does not detract from the power of his insight that much of history can be best understood in terms of the relationships of production."

The academic spat among the Darwinists is, of course, an excellent spectator sport. But does it really matter to the rest of us? Gould cites the example of the growth of "evolutionary psychology", which traces present-day human behaviour to traits that might have been useful in the African savannah, where humanity evolved. Much of this, he says, is simply not science. "To make up speculative stories about why this trait or that might have been useful two million years ago in Africa is silly."

The most notorious example of social Darwinism is Charles Murray's recent Bell Curve theory of inherited racial differences in intelligence. And the debate has broken out well beyond scientists - the US philosopher Daniel Dennett recently launched an extraordinarily vicious attack on Gould in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

Gould declines to comment on the book, but both men believe it is the moral consequences of Darwinism which make people so reluctant to accept scientific facts. In Gould's view, Darwinism destroys forever any notion that there is a natural order of things to which we can refer to justify our views of our own moral status.Homo sapiens is not the pinnacle of creation, for there is no progress from the primeval soup. We are not "higher" organisms.

As a radical, Gould wants to go even further. If the lottery of survival had come out just slightly differently, vertebrates (fish, reptiles, dinosaurs, birds and mammals among them) might never have evolved. Curiously, Gould sees in this historical contingency room for human freedom. In what might well be an expression of his personal creed, he concludes Wonderful Life: "We are the offspring of history and must establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes - one indifferent to our suffering and therefore offering us maximal freedom to thrive or to fail in our own chosen way."


Born New York City, 10 September 1941

Studies geology at Columbia University

1967: Assistant professor of geology and assistant curator of invertebrate palaeontology at Harvard.

1972: With Niles Eldridge, puts forward the revolutionary idea that evolutionary change is not gradual but jerky - long periods of changelessness interrupted by dramatic, brief periods of change.

1973: Full professor at Harvard. Starts writing a popular science column, "This view of life", in Natural History magazine. The title is taken from the last sentence of Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

1977: Publishes a work of theoretical biology, Ontogeny and Phylogeny, and his first collection of popular essays, under the title Ever Since Darwin.

1979: With Richard Lewonten, publishes a critique of the notion that organisms are perfectly adapted by natural selection. Characteristically, the paper starts by considering the architecture of San Marco in Venice.

1981: The Mismeasure of Man, an attack on the misuse of IQ tests, is published, and wins the US National Book Critics Award a year later.

Collections of his Natural History articles include: The Panda's Thumb (1980); Hen's Teeth and Horses' Toes (1983); The Flamingo's Smile (1985); An Urchin in the Storm (1987); Bully for Brontosaurus (1991); Eight Little Piggies (1993).

Currently completing a major technical work on evolutionary theory.