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Gould Was a Scientist for the People

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  • Ian Pitchford
    Madison Capital Times May 30, 2002 Gould Was a Scientist for the People by John Nichols When the Kansas Board of Education voted in 1999 to remove the teaching
    Message 1 of 1 , May 31, 2002
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      Madison Capital Times
      May 30, 2002

      Gould Was a Scientist for the People

      by John Nichols

      When the Kansas Board of Education voted in 1999 to remove the
      teaching of evolution from the state's science curriculum, most
      thinking Americans groaned about the growing influence of the
      anti-rationalist religious right. But Stephen Jay Gould, the nation's
      most prominent evolutionary biologist, refused to write off Kansas -
      or reason. He grabbed a plane for the Midwest and delivered a series
      of speeches in which he announced that "to teach biology without
      evolution is like teaching English without grammar."

      Of course, Gould could not leave it at that. With its vote, the
      master of the metaphor argued, "The board transported its
      jurisdiction to a never-never land where a Dorothy of the new
      millennium might exclaim: 'They still call it Kansas, but I don't
      think we're in the real world anymore.' "

      With his reference to "The Wizard of Oz," Gould had stepped out from
      behind the lectern and into the thick of the discussion. That was
      where Gould, who died May 20 at age 60, was at his best. A
      paleontologist who studied the land snails of Bermuda and a historian
      of science whose last book was a 1,400-page dissection of Darwin and
      evolutionary theory, the Harvard professor really did believe that
      scientists had a place in the great debates of the day.

      Science for the People was the name Gould, Richard Lewontin and their
      allies gave to the magazine and the movement they forged in a
      post-1960s burst of optimism about the prospects of linking
      scientific insights and social activism. With his unique talent for
      explaining complex ideas through eminently comprehensible references
      to baseball, choral music and the shrinking size of Hershey chocolate
      bars, Gould took on the yahoos who attempted to use pseudoscience to
      justify race, class and gender discrimination.

      The Harvard professor's 1982 book "The Mismeasure of Man" gave
      anti-racist campaigners the tools they needed to prevail in debates
      with the proponents of warped theories about inherited intelligence.

      In the mid-1990s, when conservatives embraced sociologist Charles
      Murray's book "The Bell Curve," which claimed race and class
      differences were largely caused by genetic factors, Gould charged
      into the battle anew. His savage review of "The Bell Curve" for The
      New Yorker attacked the book for advancing racially charged theories
      with "no compelling data to support its anachronistic social
      Darwinism."

      He then took apart the right-wing politicos who promoted "The Bell
      Curve," suggesting that "I can only conclude that (the book's)
      success in gaining attention must reflect the depressing temper of
      our time - a historical moment of unprecedented ungenerosity, when a
      mood for slashing social programs can be powerfully abetted by an
      argument that beneficiaries cannot be helped, owing to inborn
      cognitive limits expressed by low IQ scores."

      "What was unique about Steve was not his interest in scientific
      issues - many scientists are interested in these issues and many
      scientists and science writers try to talk about them to broad
      audiences," recalled Lewontin, Gould's Harvard colleague and comrade.

      "What made Steve different was that he didn't make a cartoon out of
      science. He didn't talk down to people. He communicated about science
      in a way that did not try to hide the complexities of the issues and
      that did not shy away from the political side of these issues.
      Steve's great talent was his ability to make sense of an issue at
      precisely the point when people needed that insight."

      John Nichols is associate editor for The Capital Times.
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