Stephen Jay Gould, the Greatest Science Essayist of All Time, on Evolution and Storytelling
“Any decent writer writes because there’s some deep internal need to keep learning.”
By Maria Popova
Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941–May 20, 2002) was a man of uncommon genius and arguably our era’s greatest science essayist. In March of 2000, he took part in the annual meeting of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, themed Challenges for the New Millennium, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Despite the poor sound and video quality, this interview recorded at the event takes us on a wide-ranging tour of Gould’s singular mind, exploring such timelessly fascinating subjects as the secret of great writing, the importance of history in science, the evolution of evolutionary theory, and the challenges to science literacy among the general public.
Transcript highlights below.
When the interviewer suggests that Gould is “a man on a mission to teach us how to think about evolution correctly,” he rebuts with a heartening testament to the only true reason to do anything, one articulated even more passionately by Ray Bradbury and by Charles Bukowski:
If I have a mission … and this might sound not exactly what you expect of people, but again, ask any writer and, on this note, nobody’ll tell you anything different … I write those essays for myself — any good writer has to. That is, of course I want to facilitate learning … it’s great, but I think if you did it only because you felt some desire to impart something to other folks [and] you weren’t doing it out of some deeply internal need, you could only do it for a while — once you got the success, there wouldn’t be an impetus anymore. I think any decent writer writes because there’s some deep internal need to keep learning.
On the qualities his favorite essays have in common:
The [essays] I like best best usually take up an unknown or an odd subject, something that was was never written about — but — if you can use something that is unknown to illustrate a larger generality, then I really get pleased.
On why pattern-recognition is the key to human creativity and fundamental to our evolutionary wiring for storytelling — something Gould himself excelled at:
The mind, basically, is a pattern-seeking machine… We tend to seek patterns… and then we tell stories about them. I think we’re pretty much conditioned to look for a pattern and to try to interpret it in terms of certain stories.
Though he shares some of Richard Feynman’s concerns about the failures of scientific culture in modern society, specifically regarding creationism vs. evolution, Gould holds greater faith in the supremacy of critical thinking over ignorance. When the interviewer marvels how he can be so popular given he writes about evolution in a country that still teaches creationism in some school curricula, Gould replies:
Why should it be contradictory that writers on evolution be popular? Creationism is a small, dogmatic minority in this country, and they make more noise than their numbers. And it’s a distressing issue, and it’s true that the vast majority of Americans don’t know a lot about the history of life and don’t think a lot about evolution — but it’s such an intrinsically fascinating subject that the majority of Americans are very favorable for science and very interested in it, and there’s hardly a concept that’s been discovered by science that’s more intrinsically exciting to people than evolution and the study of how life came to be as it is.
For more of Gould’s enduring genius of science communication, see his extensive literary legacy and the especially wonderful, bittersweet I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History — the tenth and final collection of his essays, originally released months after Gould’s death in 2002 and republished in 2012 with a brilliant cover by Sam Potts.
Published September 10, 2013