An Australian Skeptic's Tribute to
Stephen Jay Gould
Australians in recent months have become somewhat inured to the passing from our stage of prominent people who seem to have been around forever: the distinguished and gallant Sir Roden Cutler VC; the grande dame of Thespians, Ruth Cracknell; former Prime minister Sir John Gorton; honorary Australian and original comic genius Spike Milligan and, of course, in the person of Mr Alex Campbell, our last living link with Gallipoli. They have been mourned and celebrated for their contributions to our country, but we might derive some comfort from the fact that they had all had a 'pretty good innings'.
But what possible comfort can a skeptic find to alleviate the sadness of the untimely death, at 60, of Stephen Jay Gould, one of the titans of the worldwide skeptical movement?
Perhaps we might take some comfort from the fact that in the 1980s Gould was diagnosed as having mesothelioma and that he survived that diagnosis by more than 20 years. That length of survival is almost unheard of for that particularly virulent form of cancer - the cancer that killed him was of a different type.
We should be grateful for his immense literary skills and tireless output that offered the world such clear and enthusiastic testimonials to the excitement of science and the importance of skepticism to it. There are all too few scientists who have the capacity both to expound with such clarity the notion of what scientists do and to communicate the excitement of the scientific enterprise.
Many of us would agree with CSICOP Chairman and founder of the world Skeptics movement, Paul Kurtz, who said in a moving tribute to Gould:
He played a unique role in the public square, for he was an eloquent exponent of the scientific outlook. His prolific writings and brilliant lectures at Harvard and universities far and wide on evolutionary palaeontology and biology and his forthright criticisms of creationism cast him as a powerful defender of science. At a time when pseudoscientific and fringe claims continue to grow, there are all too few scientists willing to enter into the fray.
Gould's death leaves a void; and it dramatises anew how important it is to have popularisers of science. This role was played by Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, CSICOP Fellows of the past. We need to encourage today new and daring defenders of science, gadflies in the name of critical inquiry; interpreters able to extend the public's understanding of science and its methods. All too few scientists and scholars today are willing to venture beyond their specialities in order to communicate with a wider audience.
Stephen Jay Gould held some controversial ideas regarding evolution, ideas which were sometimes misused by the enemies of science to push their own narrow and bigoted views. By doing so they simply underscored their own profound ignorance of what science is, and what Gould's position was. He had no doubts about the reality of evolution as a fact of biology, he simply had some different ideas about how it worked - he was certainly no ally of the obscurantists.
I have yet to see any reports of Gould's passing from any of these anti-scientists, but fully expect them to display the same sort of stinking mealy-mouthed hypocrisy that characterised their mention of the passing of Isaac Asimov - more than enough to sicken any decent person.
Although I never met Gould, one of his idiosyncrasies, of fanatical interest in the history, the minutiae, the statistics, the trivia of baseball, is something that resonates with me, with my own notorious evasion to cricket. It bears out my belief that well-rounded Skeptics need to have interests outside their immediate concern.
I am sorry I never met Stephen Jay Gould. I think I would have liked him, and I mourn his loss.
Barry Williams, Editor, The Skeptic, Vol. 22, No. 2