Thursday, November 08, 2007

A rich life

I have been dipping into The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould, last year's anthology of Gould's writing, edited by Steven Rose. I have read much of what is here before, most notably in Natural History magazine, to which Gould contributed an unbroken string of 300 essays. His stand-alone books, too, I never failed to read. Gould could not put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, without saying something interesting.

I never met the man, but he occasionally responded to my Boston Globe columns, usually positively, once to chide. He challenged me to stick it out until he achieved his own milepost. I reached 1000 weekly columns at about the same time as he hit 300 five-times longer (and ten times smarter) monthly essays in Natural History. The Richness of Life is an apt title for his selected writings; Gould's life was very rich indeed. I was honored when he provided a very gracious blurb for my book Skeptics and True Believers.

Browsing this new collection, one gets the feeling that the scope of his interests and energy were almost miraculous. He was a champion, of course, of the contingency of evolution. Rewind the tape of life and play it again and it is extremely unlikely that anything like ourselves would emerge, he contended; there is nothing inherently progressive about evolution. Maybe so, maybe not -- the issue is debated by biologists -- but we are fortunate that chance -- or whatever -- threw a Stephen Jay upon our shore.