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A Kinder, Gentler Stephen Jay Gould

He's known for being as tough as nails--a necessary quality, perhaps, for an academic warrior. But a softer side of the biologist is emerging as he tours for his new book.

October 08, 1996|FREDERIC GOLDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Still, he has made peace with at least one of his foes, Edward O. Wilson, sometimes called the father of sociobiology and Gould's neighbor at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, who, not incidentally, is also a much admired writer. (His books "The Naturalist" [Island Press, 1994] and "The Diversity of Life" [Norton, 1993] both won Pulitzer prizes.)

Gould's toughness has probably served him best in his personal life, which has handed him at least two setbacks: the birth of an autistic son and the discovery in 1982 that he had a deadly asbestos-linked cancer, abdominal mesothelioma, with a likelihood of surviving only eight more months.

As an "intensely private person," Gould bars any probing into family matters such as the split-up with his wife of 30 years. "If you do that," he warns his questioner, "this whole thing is off."

But he does talk, albeit reluctantly, about his encounter with the disease, which his doctors defeated with surgery and chemotherapy. What bolstered him through that ordeal, he says, was his realization that the medical odds--"eight months' median mortality"--represented an average for all cases, not the chances of a single individual, which can vary all over the lot.

It's a statistical lesson he goes on to apply to evolution, contending that life's rich variety (his "full house") is a far more meaningful measure of biological trends than isolated examples, such as the emergence of man.

"We're latecomers on this planet," he says, "while the bacteria have been around forever and probably will still be here when the sun explodes."

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