02 August 2007

As good as Gould

We often use cultural stereotypes in everyday conversations to make a point. Say, for instance, when using a commonplace concept like ‘bigger is better’, meaning a bigger size is a symbol of dominance, when describing social or political or economic superiority. We use such concepts even from an evolutionary point of view, suggesting that the bigger we are, the better able we are in fighting for food and mates. After all, human society is a living proof of that, right?

Not so, said (the late) paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, Harvard professor, curator for invertebrate paleontology at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and author of such famous books as ‘The Panda’s Thumb’, ‘The Mismeasure of Man’ and ‘The Flamingo’s Smile’. To Professor Gould, who passed away in 2002, the notion of cultural stereotypes had a completely different meaning.

Since he took a somewhat macro view of life on our planet – a perspective that looked at millions of years and a thousand times as many life forms – Professor Gould believed that ‘bigger is better’ is not only incorrect, it is in fact a prejudicial view that humans flaunted to honour themselves. To prove his point, he used to give the example of bacteria which is far superior to humans in terms of biochemical diversity or potential environments in which it can survive.

From my reading about him and his books, what I value most about Professor Gould is his fairness in recognising, and evaluating, all life forms on our planet equally. A quality so few of us have.

In a Biography magazine interview with Curt Schleier in March 1998, Stephen Jay Gould had this to say: “After all, there are about a million named species of animals, of which humans are only one. There are only 4,000 species of mammals. There are almost a million species of insects. We’re just not a very prominent group. We’ve had a very great impact on the planet, but you can’t confuse impact with the status of an organism.”

[Citation: Curt Schleier, “Stephen Jay Gould: Was it Survival of the Luckiest?” Biography magazine, March 1998.]

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