Steve Gould’s last class

Matthew found this on his Twi**er feed, which recounts Stephen Jay Gould’s last classes at Harvard before he died of cancer on May 20, 2002 at age 60.  As you may know, Gould had survived peritoneal mesothelioma, an almost invariably fatal form of cancer that struck him in 1982. Amazingly, he beat the odds on that one. But 20 years later, in February 2002, radiologists found metastasized cancer—probably not a recurrence after all those years. Gould died ten weeks later.

Steve was living in New York City then but also teaching at Harvard, and I heard from one of his former students that he kept teaching classes right up until his death, shortly after the end of classes.

I have to say that although I had scientific disagreements with the man, and wasn’t a big fan of his personality, I always admired his writing and, especially, his calm acceptance of death and his fortitude about “doing his job” right up to the end. Here’s what Matthew found in a series of tweets from a student in Gould’s last “history of life” class.

I didn’t know the part about his mother coming to class with juice for him, but that’s a sweet and archetypically Jewish-mom thing to do:

Another student chimes in:

And here’s a bonus picture Matthew sent of his cat Pepper (one of three) helping him read:



  1. GBJames
    Posted September 15, 2017 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Great story!

  2. Posted September 15, 2017 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Lovely story – apart from seeing him again… – that will not happen.

    Matthew’s book is Matter by Iain M. Banks – he also sadly died of cancer, aged 59…

  3. Posted September 15, 2017 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    I loved reading this; I was there in 1968 for Steve Gould’s first class as he taught the last 10 weeks of Nat Sci 10 (Intro to Geology) at the time and his lecture series were on evolution. I was also taking Nat Sci 5 Intro to Biology (George Wald etc.) and we had one perhaps but no more than 2 lectures on evolution. Gould had been hired 67/68 and I was a freshman at Harvard. Senior year he helped me with the statistical analyses for my senior honors thesis and he allowed me access to his WANG calculating machine, early runner of a computer. I tell students today that I learned evolution from Gould’s knee as I knew nothing from high school biology and especially growing up in a very traditional farming community in the Bible Belt.

  4. Posted September 15, 2017 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    That particular creationist TA for Gould taught at William Jennings Bryan College for many years – no longer there and I don’t recall his name. The last time I saw Steve alive in the late 80s he did mention that the student had actually carried out an excellent dissertation.

    • Desnes Diev
      Posted September 15, 2017 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      Kurt Wise, perhaps. To my knowledge, it didn’t change his mind about creationism.

  5. Richard Bond
    Posted September 15, 2017 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I am very ambivalent about Gould. Much of the stuff that he wrote was interesting, but he always seemed to me to be too concerned to appear as a maverick intellectual. I read Wonderful Life, and my reaction was so what? One of his last books, The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox was dreadful. It would never have been accepted for publication if it had not been for his reputation. It never really addressed its purported subject, and was full of arrogant posing about his intellectual credentials; I do not need condescending lectures on the subjunctive mood, but Gould seemed to think that few of his readers could cope with his mighty intellect without explanations fit for a child. He was always handicapped by his failure to understand statistics: his “can there be any edge in looking 5 percent like a turd” about dung beetles could have been written by a creationist.

    • Posted September 15, 2017 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      As SJG might have said, De mortuis nil nisi bonum.

      • Posted September 15, 2017 at 10:49 am | Permalink

        merci beaucoup mon ami

      • Richard Bond
        Posted September 15, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

        Very good!

      • Diane G.
        Posted September 15, 2017 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

        + 3

  6. harrync
    Posted September 15, 2017 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Nicole Cliffe’s cool professor story beats mine by a long shot, but I am still going to tell mine. I stagger into my 7:30 am thermodynamics class in a basement classroom in the now demolished Stanford physics “tank”. Someone has written on the blackboard “Professor Hofstadter has won the Nobel Prize in Physics.” The professor enters [to mild applause, if I remember correctly], reads the board, erases it, and we proceed to have a normal class session. [Yes, 7:30; first day of class, Professor Hofstadter announced that if no one objected, this Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday 8:00 am class will be Tuesday-Thursday 7:30.] And I can’t resist adding that this class was where I first heard the correct way to state the three laws of thermodynamics: 1) You can’t win. 2)You always loose unless you are at absolute zero. 3) You can’t be at absolute zero.

  7. tfkreference
    Posted September 15, 2017 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    In his last column for Natural History, Gould describes how when he was diagnosed, he learned that survival ranged up to 20 years. He researched what the people at the far end of the bell curve did, and then emulated them. It worked – he made it to that end. Alas, no further.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted September 15, 2017 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Yes, that might have been ‘The Median Isn’t the Message’.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted September 16, 2017 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      Wasn’t that referring to his first bout of cancer? I recall reading it when I went through a bout of SJG books on long night shifts working 3&1. Short, self-contained lumps about the length of a washed pump liner or circulating a pill round the hole.

  8. Posted September 15, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I always find Gould’s essays just a *wee* bit pretentious, but interesting to read. The “reveal” at the end of _Wonderful Life_, for example.

    I was, however, really let down by his Simpsons appearance …

  9. rickflick
    Posted September 15, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    When I was sub teaching I used to sometimes have an hour or two to kill between classes. I’d usually retire to the library and read. I managed to get through many of of Gould’s articles, “This View of Life”, in back issues of Natural History Magazine. They are available on line. Here’s the archive. Search it for “Gould”. The first entry is his last essay:

  10. frednotfaith2
    Posted September 15, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I mostly enjoyed Gould’s collections of essays, which I read back in the late ’80s & ’90s. I did feel he was bending too much in favor of religion with his non-overlapping magisteria of science & religion as I couldn’t agree that religion has anything useful to say on morality and, in fact, given the multitude of religions, what claims are made on behalf of religion are both contradictory and, by any rational standard, often inhumane. I entirely concurred with Dawkins’ assessment of the issue in The God Delusion. Never read Gould’s books The Mis-measure of Man or Book of Ages.

  11. Randy schenck
    Posted September 15, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Somehow a cat always knows how to obtain full attention.

  12. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted September 15, 2017 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Like many, I cut my teeth reading Gould’s books, and I felt I got a lot out of them. He had his flaws, and there are some issues about his essays and books, but on balance he was an extremely important science communicator and I like to remember him for the good he had done.
    I attended one of his talks, and he chatted with me later and signed my copy of Wonderful Life. I will always treasure it.

  13. BJ
    Posted September 15, 2017 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    That whole story is Jewish mom all over. I love it. Showing up with food. Refusing to stop caring for you no matter how many times you say no. Embarrassing you in front of everyone. And all of it because damn it, she just loves you too much to ever leave you alone 🙂

    That was a wonderful story.

  14. rich lawler
    Posted September 15, 2017 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant, heart-warming post.

  15. Posted September 15, 2017 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    This is a real tear-jerker. Would that we all could have a mom that cared that much to be a royal pain in the ass. We often don’t appreciate these kindnesses till it’s too late.

  16. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted September 15, 2017 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    I found his books readable but two things niggled me about them. One was his over-emphasis of the differences between punc-eq and (supposed) Darwin gradualism, which predictably played into the hands of Creationist quote-miners.

    The other was his fondness for analogies with baseball, which conveyed nothing to me. (Coulda been worse I suppose, coulda been gridiron football).


    • rickflick
      Posted September 15, 2017 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

      I agree. The punctuated equilibrium was his self proclaimed claim to fame. From what I’ve seen, it really wasn’t well supported, and it’s probably ignored now. I could be wrong. I’m not really that close to the issue. Perhaps someone who’s knowledgeable will chime in on it.

  17. Posted September 16, 2017 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks so much for this story of SJ Gould’s mom.

    I also do not agree with some of his theories, but love his writing

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