Evolutionary biologist Gould doubts low level of science literacy imperils U.S.

March 09, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

While lamenting the American public's low level of science literacy, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould doubts the future is threatened by so many people knowing so little about science.

"I wish I could believe it (science literacy) was absolutely necessary to a well-functioning society, but I'm not sure that I do," he told a Loyola College faculty seminar yesterday.

Dr. Gould met with about a dozen faculty members, other staff and alumni before his appearance last night as keynote speaker for Loyola's Humanities Symposium.

He sat at the end of a conference table, discussing whether there was an anti-science theme in Mary Shelley's 1820 novel "Frankenstein." (Gould doesn't think so). The seminar then turned to the state of science education and anti-intellectualism in modern America.

"I think we live in a profoundly anti-intellectual culture," driven by a "fundamentally anti-intellectual medium" he said, referring to television.

But in a nation and an economy as large as ours, the United States may not need to graduate a large proportion of scientists, he said.

Young people "certainly have to be adequately literate to be sitting at the terminal and running it," he said. But they don't have to build a computer or know how one works.

What really counts, Dr. Gould said, is: "Are we producing enough [scientists and mathematicians] to run the economy?"

Probably, he concluded. "I'm not convinced there is a special science incompetence" in the United States, compared with other industrial nations.

That's not to say a higher level of science literacy would be unwelcome. After all, he makes a good portion of his living by writing books and articles that make scientific discovery -- particularly in paleontology and evolution -- accessible.

"I just want more people interested in science because it's just so damn interesting," he said.

Brought up in Queens, N.Y., the son of a court stenographer, Dr. Gould lives in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife and two children.

He is the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Geology at Harvard and an authority on the Cerion, a tropical snail. But Dr. Gould is best known as an evolutionary biologist.

He has written seven books and hundreds of essays for Natural History and Discover magazines. His essay topics range widely from the evolution of Mickey Mouse to the disappearance of .400-hitters in professional baseball.

Dr. Gould gained attention for a 1972 paper -- controversial among scientists -- proposing that evolution moves in sudden, dramatic leaps in response to natural challenges, followed by long periods of relative stability. The conventional theory held that species evolve in a slow, steady progression.

His ideas were explored for general readers in a 1989 book, "Wonderful Life," which looks at the immense diversity of life that burst onto the planet 560 million years ago, only to be quickly winnowed to the few general body designs that survive today.

Dr. Gould argues that chance, not fitness, determined what survived and failed. And if the scene were set again, the results visible today would be dramatically different.

In a 1993 essay collection, "Eight Little Piggies," he argues that it is largely a quirk of nature -- not some grand design -- that finds modern vertebrates with five digits on each limb rather than eight.

Likewise, he says, evolution of intelligence as the key to human success on this planet may be just a chance experiment and no more an inevitable and crowning achievement of creation than five fingers. He challenges the "arrogant notion that evolution has a predictable direction leading toward human life."

Life on Earth, he notes, is dominated by bacteria and insects, forms that evolved early in geologic time.

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