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.
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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.
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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.


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