Four months ago, when the Kansas Board of Education voted to cut evolution from the mandatory science curriculum, few people were more outraged than Stephen Jay Gould. Teaching biology without evolution is "like teaching English but making grammar optional," Gould said. The Kansas decision reeked of "absurdity" and "ignorance" and was a national embarrassment. The question of whether to teach evolution "only comes up in this crazy country," he told an audience at the University of Kansas after the decision.
All of this is more or less true. But it's also true that, over the years, Gould himself has lent real strength to the creationist movement. Not intentionally, of course. Gould's politics are secular left, the opposite of creationist politics, and his outrage toward creationists is genuine. Yet, in spite of this stance-and, oddly, in some ways because of it-he has wound up aiding and abetting their cause.
This indictment of Gould will no doubt surprise his large reading public. After all, in addition to being America's unofficial evolutionist laureate, Gould is a scientist of sterling credentials-a Harvard paleontologist and, currently, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In what more capable hands could the defense of science rest?
This indictment will also surprise many evolutionary biologists, but for different reasons. It isn't that they necessarily consider Gould a great scientist; a number of insiders take a quite different view. But they do generally think of him as a valiant warrior against the creationist hordes. The eminent British biologist John Maynard Smith has observed, "Gould occupies a rather curious position, particularly on his side of the Atlantic. Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by nonbiologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists."
In truth, though, Gould is not helping the evolutionists against the creationists, and the sooner the evolutionists realize that the better. For, as Maynard Smith has noted, Gould "is giving nonbiologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory."
As it happens, creationists have been wondering the very same thing, and they're delighted to have a Harvard paleontologist who will nourish their doubts. Gould is a particular godsend to the more intellectual anti-evolutionists, who mount the sustained (and ostensibly secular) critiques that give creationism a veneer of legitimacy. In attacking Darwinian theory, they don't have to build a straw man; Gould has built one for them. When Phillip E. Johnson, the most noted of these writers, begins a sentence, "As Stephen Jay Gould describes it, in his fine book," this is not good cause for Gould to swell with pride.
Gould also performs a more subtle service for creationists. Having bolstered their caricature of Darwinism as implausible, he bolsters their caricature of it as an atheist plot. He depicts evolution as something that can't possibly reflect a higher purpose, and thus can't provide the sort of spiritual consolation most people are after. Even Gould's recent book "Rocks of Ages," which claims to reconcile science and religion, draws this moral from the story of evolution: we live in a universe that is "indifferent to our suffering."
Obviously, if the grounds for this conclusion are as firm as he says, then we have to live with it. But they're not. Though modern Darwinism is incompatible with various religious beliefs (such as a literal interpretation of Genesis), it needn't alienate religious seekers of a liberal-minded variety: those with no attachment to any scriptural creation scenario but with a suspicion-or, at least, a hope-that life has more meaning than meets the eye. Indeed, the Darwinian account of our creation, once stripped of the misconceptions that Gould has covered it with, is not only compatible with a higher purpose but vaguely suggestive of one.