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Obituary a Critic of Racial ‘psuedoscience,’ Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould Dies

May 23, 2002
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Stephen Jay Gould, a scientist who criticized the use of “pseudoscience” to characterize Jews and others as inferior human beings, died Monday at the age of 60.

Gould, who died of cancer in New York, was a prolific essayist who taught at Harvard — and earned a National Book Award and a MacArthur “genius” grant.

Gould, who was considered both brilliant and arrogant, was also a talented singer who regularly practiced with a chorus in Boston.

A prolific writer, Gould was best known in the scientific world for his theory of punctuated equilibrium. After studying fossil records, Gould and a colleague argued that evolution was not a gradual process, but occurred intermittently and suddenly.

This theory is not universally accepted, but it revolutionized evolutionary science, including paleontology, Gould’s own field.

But Gould’s reach extended far beyond academia. Through his many books and his regular column in Natural History, he brought science to the layman.

“The Mismeasure of Man” explains how racial theories were used to justify restrictions on immigration in the United States after 1920.

These restrictions, Gould noted, kept Jewish refugees out during the 1930s as the scourge of anti-Semitism swept across Europe.

“We know what happened to many who wished to leave but had nowhere to go. The paths to destruction are often indirect, but ideas can be agents as sure as guns and bombs,” he wrote.

His criticisms of scientific attempts to categorize people by biological characteristics had a personal link.

“All my grandparents were immigrants to America, and in the group of Eastern European Jews” whom these race scientists “would have so severely restricted,” he wrote.

He also used his knowledge to buoy his spirits after he was diagnosed with cancer for the first time in 1982. After learning that the median survival for people in his condition was eight months, he realized that meant that half of the people with the diagnosis lived longer than eight months.

He survived that illness through experimental treatment.

His writings also earned him a good deal of fame — how many paleontologists appeared as themselves on “The Simpsons”?

In addition to his science writings, Gould also wrote about another of his passions, baseball, and his own leftist Jewish upbringing in New York — a childhood that left him unconnected to religious Judaism.

“Religion is an intriguing phenomenon that everyone should know about because it’s played such a vital role in human history,” he once told the Forward newspaper. “It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me personally.”

His writings were collected in numerous best-selling books, including “Bully for Brontosaurus” and “Wonderful Life.”

Gould was born in 1941 in Queens.

He traced his love of science to a trip he took with his father as a young child to the American Museum of National History.

“I dreamed of becoming a scientist, in general, and a paleontologist, in particular, ever since the Tyrannosaurus skeleton awed and scared me,” he wrote.

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