The Cosmic Lottery: As Stephen Jay Gould Sees It, Human Histoy Is a Tale of Random Luck
by Elizabeth Mehren
is nothing quite like a conversation with Stephen Jay Gould to knock a little
evolutionary humility into a person.
Manor even womanas the
crowning achievement of some grand cosmic plan? What mortal conceit. "We're an
afterthought," said Gould, the distinguished paleontologist, essayist, Harvard
University professor and author. "A little accidental twig."
The desire "to see evolution as predictably preparatory for
the evolution of human consciousness
is our human arrogance," Gould said
one afternoon in his office in Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. In fact,
although "a great, transcendent invention," consciousness is merely "a lucky
afterthought," like human life, Gould maintains.
And rather than a "predictable, progressive process" that
culminated in the development of human life, natural history is a series of
largely serendipitous events, marked less by chaos or randomness than by
contingency. In short, Gould believes, human history has been a fairly
It rattles people to hear talk like this, Gould said: "We
accept it for historical events. We all know the South could have won the
Battle of Gettysburg, for example." But unpredictability in nature, the idea
that "what happens is one of a billion possible scenarios," makes people
A smallish man, Gould obviously relishes the task of
toppling humans from their evolutionary high horse. "I think it is threatening
to most people," he said. "I don't mean that in an overt sort of way. But it's
threatening to a kind of comfort, to a solace that people find" in the
predictability of viewing humans as nature's final evolutionary refinement.
Officially described as a professor of geology, Gould, 48,
prefers to think of himself as an evolutionary biologist, focusing primarily
on mathematical problems of growth and form applied to evolution of lineages.
At Harvard, Gould's hugely popular undergraduate courses
in geology, biology and the history of science rank him among faculty
superstars. He dismisses his acclaim on campus by insisting that students only
sign up for his course because there's a science requirement" for graduation.
But outside academe, Gould is vastly better known as the
author of a series of inventively titled books that have captured the
popular fancy without costing Gould his scientific credibility.
His recent literary effort, "Wonderful Life: The Burgess
Shale Nature of History" (W.W. Norton, $19.95), climbed to national
bestseller lists within weeks of publication last month.
With its title inspired by the Frank Capra movie that Gould
says he has watched every Christmas Eve for as many years as he can remember.
"Wonderful Life" uses the illustration of the Burgess Shale, a small fossil
area in British Columbia, to demonstrate Gould's theory that humans are little
more than an accident of nature.
First discovered by the American paleontologist Charles
Walcott in 1909, the Burgess yielded a remarkable array of animal life from
530 million years ago. This was the period just after the Cambrian Explosion,
when the antecedents of most modern groups of animals began to appear on the
Walcott proceeded first to bestow upon his find strange
names derived mainly from the area's Indian heritage. Then the longtime head
of the Smithsonian Institution misclassified the entire group of Burgess
animals so that they served, Gould writes, as "a set of primitive or
ancestral forms of later, improved life." His error went uncorrected until
the 1970s, when two Cambridge University scientists showed not only that
"most Burgess organisms do not belong to familiar groups," but that the
anatomical diversity of these creatures exceeds "the entire spectrum of
invertebrate life in today's oceans."
To the eye trained to assume that evolution leads
ultimately to a two-legged beast with no tail and varying degrees of
superficial, body hair, the animals from the Burgess look as bizarre as
the names Walcott and his successors gave them. One, Opabinia, has
five eyes and a frontal protrusion that looks like a vacuum cleaner.
brandishes seven tentacles and moves about on seven pairs of legs.
But to Gould, the Burgess organisms validate the
doctrine of contingency. He harks back to the metaphor of "It's a
Wonderful Life." In the movie, Jimmy Stewart is contemplating suicide
when a guardian angel plays back a, tape of his life to show him how
different things would have been without him. Play back the tape of
life on Earth, Gould contends, and the chances that man or an
intelligent creature like man would have evolved are slim. "It's a
grand-scale lottery," Gould said.
Like his earlier works, his new book is complicated;
it is not read and digested without some effort. But his use of a
highly personal kind of prose, with continuing reference to baseball,
movies, science fiction and assorted cosmic jokes, makes it less
That quality of accessibility puts Gould in the
literary league of scientists like Lewis Thomas and
Carl Sagan, suggested his
editor, Ed Barber. Both are serious scientists who managed to break
into the marketplace of popular reading. More recently, they have been
joined by writers such as James Gleick, whose "Chaos" (Viking) surprised
even its publisher with its huge success, and Stephen Hawking, whose "A
Brief History of Time" has spent more than a year and a half on some
national hard-cover bestseller lists.
"I think people realize they live in a scientific
and technical world," Barber said when asked to account for this
phenomenon of megaular science books. "I think it kind of nags in the
backs of people's minds. They want to know about their world." Maybe,
said Ann Harris, Stephen Hawking's editor at Bantam, the growing popularity
of this genre of science books reflects an increasing hunger to
understand how the world works.
"All we can do is make uneducated guesses and offer
intuitive judgments," Harris said. "But I think it is true that if you
can impose some kind of order on the universe, there is reason to be able
to sustain some kind of optimism in a world where that is otherwise
The ongoing interest in Hawking's "Brief History"
"startled everyone," Harris said. "We expected major, major attention.
We expected respectable sales," she said. But we didn't expect a
One reason its success caught so many people by surprise
is that "Brief History" is very, very hard to read. "It is disarmingly
accessible for the preface and about a dozen pages," Harris said. "Then it
is very hard going."
But at Norton, Barber said he would prefer that readers
consume some parts of these books rather than none at all. "Some of these
books might be called popular science books, in the sense that they are
meant to be read by a wide audience," he said. "But some parts of these books
are not popcorn reads, nor should they be. We're much better off if people
read some parts of these books."
In an office the size of the Burgess Shale, and perhaps
just as cluttered with layers of history, Gould offered his own explanation
for why books like his attract a strong readership. "There are a few subjects
in science that are in some senses intrinsically fascinating to all people,"
Gould said. "There are a half dozen or so key questionsinfinity of
space, eternity of timeand evolution is one of them. "The question is,
'Why are we here? What is our relationship to the Earth?' These are really
deep, bull-session questions. They are unanswerable, but they continue to
Books like Gould's also fly in the face of a conservative
religious and political trend that balks at randomness or contingency and
sees human history as a divinely orchestrated process. New science textbooks
in California, for example will acknowledge Creationism by adhering to
guidelines that state that "some people reject the theory of evolution based
purely on the basis of religious faith." Gould, however, feels little threat
from this faction.
Creationists, he said, "are not very powerful. They tend
to be very nice people, but my god, they are so misguided and misinformed."
Nor does he worry excessively about losing his standing
as a serious scientist by writing such popular books. "If you worry about it,
you shouldn't be doing it," he said.
Gould, "like a lot of paleontologists," traces his love
for his field to a childhood spent haunting the halls of the grand old
American Museum of Natural History on New York's Central Park West. Gould
grew up in Queens, "and the subway was just a nickel then." He fell
deeply in love with dinosaurs.
His sense of marvel remains undimmed, as does a streak of
whimsy the size of the Olduvai Gorge. Consider an upcoming essay by Gould in
Natural History magazine, in which he addresses the question of scientific
nomenclature and classification. It begins with this important scientific
query: "What do Catherine the Great, Attila the Hun and Bozo the Clown have
Answer? "They all have the same middle name."
[ Elizabeth Mehren "The Cosmic Lottery," Los Angeles Times November 28, 1989, E1, E6. ]
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