Evolutionary Biology After Auschwitz

Looking Back at the Works of Stephen Jay Gould

Fear and Fascination: Stephen Jay Gould was seized with fear, and fascination, when he first saw the giant dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History.
getty images
Fear and Fascination: Stephen Jay Gould was seized with fear, and fascination, when he first saw the giant dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published May 18, 2012, issue of May 25, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

May 20 marks the 10th anniversary of the death, at age 60, of evolutionary biologist and popular author Stephen Jay Gould. That’s an excellent excuse to relish seven paperback reprints of his work, out last fall from Harvard University Press. Included are “Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History” and “I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History.” Gould’s books are distinctive for their moral concerns, which are derived directly from the author’s strong Jewish background.

One essay in “Dinosaur in a Haystack” describes how in 1944, at age 3, Gould understood World War II as a personal “fight between my daddy and a bad man named Hitler.” After his father, court stenographer Leonard Gould, returned from military service, he took his son to New York’s Museum of Natural History, where they explored the collection of dinosaur skeletons. Gould had a shock that determined his future career path, as he later told one interviewer, when a “man sneezed, and I thought the tyrannosaurus had come to life and was about to devour me. But at that moment, the fear — I just let fascination creep in.”

Fear and angst would also draw the young Gould to an item on his parents’ bookshelves: Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” in Ralph Manheim’s 1943 translation. Gould felt anguish at merely touching this volume, as “Dinosaur in a Haystack” explains.

My parents bought [“Mein Kampf”] before my father left to join the battle. Throughout my youth, I stared at this volume on my parents’ shelves, taking it down now and again — more to experience the frisson of touching evil than from any desire to read.

Both instances of childhood trepidation would resonate through Gould’s life, as he became the quintessential biologist-after-Auschwitz, marked by the creative anxiety to understand and explain a scary world where either dinosaurs ruled the earth or the more recent horror of the Holocaust could occur. In the same chapter, Gould addressed how in the notorious 1942 Wannsee Protocol, in which plans for the Holocaust were drawn up and rationalized, Adolf Eichmann misused the Darwinian term “natural selection” to describe how Jews should be, and indeed would be, massacred. Gould’s life was based on the beauties of science and on the particular appeal of how Charles Darwin’s discoveries correspond to realities in the natural world. He reacted violently to finding Darwin cited in this context, addressing the reader:

Perhaps you do not see the special horror of this line (embedded, as it is, in such maximal evil). But what can be more wrenching than the violation of one’s own child, or the perversion for vicious purpose of the most noble item in a person’s world?… What could be more unnatural, more irrelevant, to Darwin’s process, than the intricately planned murder and starvation of several million people by human technology?

In Gould’s agonizingly heartfelt plea, the trauma is fresh, and the metaphor of child rape is aptly violent for how Nazi pseudo-science was used to support policies of extermination. From his father’s professional experience in courtrooms, Gould possibly absorbed the sense of justice that permeates his essays, making them about human morality from an ethically Jewish point of view as well as about natural science.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.