Evolution of a Scientist Johns Hopkins paleontologist Steven Stanley refuses to clam up. Once again, he's going out on a limb with his revolutionary -- or even heretical -- ideas about humans and nature.

October 03, 1994|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Writer

Among fellow scientists, he is Mr. Bivalve. His word is Holy Writ on the evolution of clams, mussels and oysters.

And if Steven M. Stanley had stuck with studying the habits of bottom-feeders, he'd probably have steered clear of trouble.

But the boyish, 52-year-old Johns Hopkins University paleontologist has a restless mind. He's come up with a string of provocative insights in fields outside his specialty, trespassing on the turf of his intellectual neighbors: suggesting that evolution was stuck in neutral until the appearance of the nerve cell, say, or supporting the once-heretical idea that evolution occurs in spurts.

And this has irked some other scientists.

At a meeting in Chicago in 1980, John Maynard Smith, a prominent British zoologist and foe of the fits-and-starts picture of evolution, took the podium and called one of Dr. Stanley's books "wrong . . . wrong . . . wrong."

During a conversation over lunch in Rome a short time later, an ally of Dr. Smith sprang to his feet and crowed at Dr. Stanley: "I'm glad I caught you in this lie!"

Now, though he lacks formal training in both human evolution and anthropology, the Hopkins scientist is wading into the noisy debate over what led to the fourfold growth in the size of the human brain over the past 2.5 million years.

One anthropologist has already taken private potshots, sniffing that there is nothing new in Dr. Stanley's theory -- though some of his colleagues say it represents a startling insight.

"It seems everything I do I upset people," sighs the lanky one-time high school wrestler, swiveling in his chair in his spacious Hopkins office. "There are always entrenched people who are not happy to see someone else coming into their field with a new idea. There's a tendency to be unwelcoming."

Welcome or not, Dr. Stanley is undaunted. That's because he has not only survived past academic battles, he has flourished.

Named a full professor at Hopkins in 1974 at the tender age of 32, Dr. Stanley has published several books, including "The New Evolutionary Timetable: Fossils, Genes and the Origin of Species," which was nominated for the American Book Award.

He is also the author of "Extinctions," a book that explores the mystery of catastrophes that over the past 650 million years have periodically exterminated large chunks of the planet's plant and animal life. (Perhaps the best-known of these events wiped out dinosaurs 65 million years ago, now generally blamed on an asteroid impact off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.)

Last spring, he was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

"Virtually everything he writes is stimulating, novel and usually correct," said Ernst Mayr, a retired Harvard biologist and prominent evolutionary theorist. Asked to describe Dr. Stanley's greatest strength, Dr. Mayr replied: "Brains."

"What Steve has is perspective," said Bruce Marsh, a geologist who, like Dr. Stanley, works in Hopkins' small department of earth and planetary sciences. "He's not buried in lots of details and lots of conventions. He can come in and look at it from broader perspectives and broader principles."

Even Dr. Stanley's professional debut, his Ph.D thesis at Yale relating the shape of a bivalve's shell to the animal's behavior, was a groundbreaking "instant classic," said David M. Raup, a retired paleontologist with the University of Chicago, who co-authored a textbook with him.

Once established, Dr. Stanley began rummaging around for fresh ideas. He didn't burrow into his academic specialty and publish stacks of papers on the topic, as most scientists wind up doing. He used his bivalve expertise as a springboard to bigger questions.

Surprisingly, Dr. Stanley partly blames his intellectual breadth on a learning disability.

At the age of 46, after a lifetime of struggling with memorization, reading comprehension and mathematical computation, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. (He has taken the drug Ritalin to combat the condition for the past six years.)

"I can't remember the names of things so well, or the exact numbers," said Dr. Stanley. "But I have a broad, general knowledge of the way things work, things that I find interesting."

Partly, Dr. Stanley said, he inherited an independent streak from his father, William T. Stanley, an engineer and inventor who designed a contraption that, at one point, was used to polish almost all the ball bearings made in the United States.

The elder Mr. Stanley once told Steven, his younger son, that the best way to solve a problem was to come up with his own solution.

"That was better than using somebody else's idea," Dr. Stanley said.

Excelled in reasoning

As an undergraduate at Princeton, he excelled in courses where success was based on reasoning, not memorizing facts and figures. While he muddled through freshman biology tests with mediocre grades, he earned an "A+" in a mineralogy course taught by one of the school's toughest teachers.

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