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 anti-rationalist religious right. But Stephen Jay Gould, the nation's most prominent evolutionary biologist, refused to write off Kansas - or reason. He grabbed a plane for the Midwest and delivered a series of speeches in which he announced that "to teach biology without evolution is like teaching English without grammar."
Of course, Gould could not leave it at that. With its vote, the master of the metaphor 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.' "
With his reference to "The Wizard of Oz," Gould had stepped out from behind the lectern and into the thick of the discussion. 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 Darwin and evolutionary theory, the Harvard professor really did believe that scientists had a place in the great debates 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 chocolate bars, Gould took on the yahoos who attempted to use pseudoscience to justify race, class and gender discrimination.
The Harvard professor's 1982 book "The Mismeasure of Man" gave anti-racist campaigners the tools they needed to prevail in debates with the proponents of warped theories about inherited intelligence.
In the mid-1990s, when conservatives embraced sociologist Charles Murray's book "The Bell Curve," which claimed race and class differences were largely caused by genetic factors, Gould charged into the battle anew. His savage review of "The Bell Curve" for The New Yorker attacked the book for advancing racially charged theories with "no compelling data to support its anachronistic social Darwinism."
He then took apart the right-wing politicos who promoted "The Bell Curve," suggesting that "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 was unique about Steve was not his interest in scientific issues - many scientists are interested in these issues and many scientists and science writers try to talk about them to broad audiences," recalled Lewontin, Gould's Harvard colleague and comrade.
"What made Steve different was that he didn't make a cartoon out of science. He didn't talk down to people. 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."
John Nichols is associate editor for The Capital Times.
Copyright 2002 The Capital Times