Contending with Darwin
No one who reads a newspaper, however cursorily, could miss the news that Stephen Jay Gould, Professor of Zoology at Harvard University, died of lung cancer on May 20, 2002. He had fought his way out of another cancer, a rare form of abdominal cancer, 20 years ago. His reaction to that affliction was to go to the library as soon as he could after surgery, where he learnt that the prognosis for his type of cancer (mesothelioma) was gloomy, the median life expectancy after discovery being eight months. But Gould read more carefully. What resulted was an essay; typically, it was witty, somewhat wordy and hyperbolic at the same time. The essay discussed how to interpret statistical information; and in particular, the fact that the median was not the same as what was most likely.
Gould was a prolific and very successful writer. Much of his writing was on evolution and its implications. As a populariser of evolutionary ideas, he was arguably without a peer in our time. Gould the writer was a huge success. A large number of people would never have thought about science and evolution had it not been for him. His essays are immensely readable, and laced liberally with quotations and allusions. But Gould's stature as a popular writer was limited by the fact that much of what he wrote was in order to advocate his own special way of looking at evolution.
He tried hard to push some ideas. The best-known of these was embodied in the phrase