My colleague at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, Richard Westenburg, told me on a few occasions that, since I studied science and religion, I might be interested to hear about his friend Stephen Jay Gould. We even offered to introduce me to Gould at some point. Apparently, Gould was hilarious. And both were diehard Yankees fans. (Gould grew up in Brooklyn, even if he taught in Red Sox territory, i.e., Harvard.)
I never took Dick Westenburg up on the offer. I wish I had.
As I write my book on science and religion in America, I’ve come to appreciate so much of what Gould thought. So this is my wistful tribute to the man and some of what I've learned.
The late Stephen Jay Gould (he died in 2004) was a leading paleontologist who would be worth remembering for his scientific contributions alone both to Harvard University and to New York City’s Museum of Natural History. Principal among his many scientific accomplishments is the concept he developed with Niles Eldredge in 1972,
“The theory of punctuated equilibrium, a revision of Darwinian theory proposing that the creation of new species through evolutionary change occurs not at slow, constant rates over millions of years but rather in rapid bursts over periods as short as thousands of years, which are then followed by long periods of stability during which organisms undergo little further change.”
Gould’s 1999 book Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life is a compelling presentation of an independence model for relating science and religion. In it Gould describes "NOMA" or "Non-Overlapping Magisterial Authority." In this view, science and religion were never at war, but nonetheless were best kept separate. I love this quotation from Gould:
“Science and religion do not glower at each other...[but] interdigitate in patterns of complex fingering, and at every fractal scale of self-similarity.” Stephen Jay Gould
I love this citation because I’m not entirely sure what it means.
He’s more clear when he writes that religion and science each possess a “domain of teaching authority” that does not overlap with the other. Similarly, the policy statement from the National Academy of Sciences phrases it this way:
"Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience.” And "Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist." National Academy of Sciences
After the publication of Philip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial, which became a rallying cry for the Intelligent Design movement, Gould offered review of Darwin on Trial in Scientific American called “Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge.” I love the title because Johnson appoints himself to judge Darwin without sufficient acumen in theology, philosophy, or science. What the legal scholar Johnson did possess was a brilliant mind for argumentation. At any rate, the review includes a few gems:
“Science can work only with naturalistic explanations, it can neither affirm no deny other types of actors (like God) in other spheres.” S. J. Gould
He then notes that Darwin declared himself an agnostic, while Asa Gray, Darwin’s supporter, was a “devout Christian.” Charles D. Walcott, who discovered the Burgess Shale Fossils, was also “a convinced Darwinian and an equally firm Christian.” And then he writes
"Move on another 50 years to the two greatest evolutionists of our generation G.G. Simpson a humanistic agnostic, Theodosius Dobzhansky, a believing Russian Orthodox. Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid or else Darwinism is fully compatible with religious belief—and equally compatible with science." S. J. Gould
NOMA as a type represents the dominant view from official scientific organizations today. NOMA declares, “Hey! It’s great that science and religion get along!” Many don't listen. Way too many of us today like to read about—and foment—conflict. And so NOMA just doesn’t receive the same amount of press as Richard Dawkins.
But Gould is still worth listening to nonetheless.