Stephen Gould, Evolutionist

Evolution popularizer Stephen Jay Gould dies By Anne Barnard and Stephen Smith, Globe Staff, 5/21/2002

Dr. Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard paleontologist who brought the science of evolution to a broad new audience, died yesterday of metastasized lung cancer at his home in New York City. He was 60 years old.

Dr. Gould, more than any other scientist of his generation, brought to the public one of science's most fascinating quests: understanding how life came to be and what that says - or does not say - about human nature. His prolific and sometimes controversial writing made him perhaps the best-known science writer in the United States.

He explained evolution much the way Carl Sagan explained astronomy. He was an outspoken foe of creationists, as well as some fellow evolutionists with whom he clashed over differing theories. Critics occasionally grumbled that he was more focused on celebrity and commercialization than on rigorous science. Fans and literary societies praised him for ''opening the floodgates,'' as one of his longtime editors put it, to a whole new genre of writing that brought home to laypeople the increasingly complicated world of science.

''Steve did not try to make it simple; he tried and succeeded in explaining the complications,'' said Richard Lewontin, a professor of biology and zoology at Harvard. ''He made readers appreciate how messy and variable life is.''

In 1974, Edwin Barber, senior editor at W. W. Norton & Co., persuaded Dr. Gould to start writing about science for the public after coming across an essay in Natural History magazine in which the young professor mused about the sizes and shapes found in nature, explaining, for example, why elephants have big feet. ''He never wrote down to his audience - he always respected his audience - but he was able to translate science by using Gilbert and Sullivan, baseball, and any number of other things from everyday life,'' Barber said. In one memorable analogy, Dr. Gould, a lifelong Yankees fan who nonetheless held season tickets at Fenway Park, compared the gradual disappearance of extreme variation of size or shape in a species to the way .400 hitters have become rarer as baseball achieves a better balance between pitchers and batters, and players cluster around the median batting average.

Dr. Gould was not only an advocate of evolutionary theory against creationism, which he once called ''a local, indigenous, American bizarre-ity,'' but he also was a vigorous fighter in the intramural battles among evolutionary scientists. In academia, Dr. Gould was best known for challenging the idea, accepted since the time of Darwin, that life changed gradually, evolving slowly and steadily. Beginning in the 1970s, Dr. Gould and biologist Niles Eldredge argued that the story of life on earth was instead a series of cataclysmic changes, perhaps prompted by the impact of asteroids or climate fluctuations, in which species evolved in quick spurts after long chapters of little change. The theory, called ''punctuated equilibrium,'' started a scientific debate, at times bitter, that continues today. Critics sometimes called it ''evolution by jerks,'' referring to the spasms of change, as well as to the aggressiveness of its proponents.

Dr. Gould was a prominent critic of the search for the evolutionary basis of behavior, a field called sociobiology founded by his Harvard colleague and archrival, E. O. Wilson. But he and Wilson shared the naturalist's love of field work among animals and fossils - almost old-fashioned in the era of microbiology. That fascination took Dr. Gould from the relatively mundane West Indian land snails that occupied much of his research to the diverse and often oddly shaped fauna of the Burgess Shale, a fossil bed in the Canadian Rockies.

Twenty years ago, Dr. Gould was diagnosed with a rare cancer called mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the lungs and is sometimes attributed to asbestos exposure. After losing 62 pounds and coming close to death, Dr. Gould recovered - in part, he wrote, by focusing on his statistical chances of survival. ''I could only say with the most fierce resolution, Not yet Lord, not yet.''' That same determination and zest for life, friends said, kept him working even after cancer struck again about two months ago, invading his lungs and other parts of his body. To help him keep up with his course schedule, his mother, Eleanor, recently came to stay with Dr. Gould in the South End apartment he maintained along with his New York home.

Dr. Gould had just published two career-capping works. The first, a 1,433-page academic tome called ''The Structure of Evolutionary Theory,'' detailed, in a sense, the evolution of evolutionary theory. It describes how Darwinism developed and how some of its central assumptions have been challenged - with an emphasis on his own theories. Despite his illness, Dr. Gould made plans to go on tour this month with his latest book: ''I Have Landed: The End of the Beginning in Natural History.'' He was scheduled to sign the book at the Harvard Square Coop today. His most personal book, it took its title from his grandfather's statement upon arriving in the United States from Hungary on Sept. 11, 1901, and touched on moments of childhood wonder that prefigure his own reverence of science and nature. The book is a collection of essays published in Natural History, essays he wrote 300 months in a row. Ellen Goldensohn, editor of the magazine, said Dr. Gould's complex columns never needed editing. ''He was the only person we didn't touch,'' Goldensohn said. ''Even some other famous names I won't mention need to be edited. I once remember a sentence that went on for 17 lines, but it was utterly readable.''

Dr. Gould was renowned by friends and foes for an ego, big even by Harvard standards. ''I once put him on hold - big mistake,'' Goldensohn said. ''That was 12 or 15 years ago. He really took me to task for that. He didn't have time for that.''

Friends and colleagues said Dr. Gould's loss would be deeply felt, from Harvard, where he spent 35 years after arriving as a relatively unknown professor in his mid-20s, to the Boston Cecilia, a choral orchestral group in which he sang for about 30 years. ''Steve Gould always seemed larger than life,'' said Andrew Knoll, a professor of Natural History at Harvard and a close friend. ''I'm not sure he ever thought a small thought in his life.'' Somehow, amid his panoply of other commitments, Dr. Gould always managed to show up for the choral society's Monday night rehearsals at All Saints Church in Brookline. He was there most recently two weeks ago, looking frail and gray. ''Still, he sang his heart out,'' Boston Cecilia's music director, Donald Teeters, said yesterday. ''It was so typical Steve Gould.'' Dr. Gould's interest in music was nurtured in the public schools of his native New York City, Teeters said. It was a measure of the intellectual ferment of his life that Dr. Gould favored ornate, embroidered Wagnerian operas. ''He really liked the great works that went on for hours because it really gave him a chance to submerge himself in the works,'' Teeters said. ''Steve Gould was a star in Harvard's firmament,'' Jeremy R. Knowles, dean of the university's faculty of arts and sciences, said in a statement. ''The world is a sadly duller and a less informed place without him.''