The Stephens I admire, adore and would like to be..

Yes, unlike the false promise on Che Guevara ( still have to work on it..) my favorite Stephens are easier for me to write about, I already know them quite well.

Stephen Jay Gould was a paleontologist, who broke away from the tenet in evolutionary theory ( if you care, the tenet is gradual accumulation of genetic variation that led to formation of new species), sort of challenging the Father of Modern Biology- Charles Darwin, but according to me, had Darwin been alive he would have approved, and came up with his own postulate, with Niles Eldredge, they called it ‘punctuated equilibrium’. (This won’t be in parenthesis, because the post is about Gould, no?) That postulate is that there were certain shorter ‘periods’, in geological eras or eons where mutations accumulated at a faster rate than normal and led to an ‘explosion’ in the number of new species formed. What led to these periods? Pretty much the same things that were thought to cause speciation in ‘gradualism’. However, the details are for another time and perhaps another audience (but hopefully the very same writer).

Unfortunately for me, and other wide eyed innocents in countries where evolution is not questioned at any level of school and is taught as a fact ( for  a most charming essay on the oft-quoted-yet-misunderstood difference between ‘theory’ and ‘fact’ that has burdened the ‘Theory of Evolution’, albeit only in America, please read (, Gould’s novel theory by which evolution ( the fact) might have occurred (along with in other ways that have been stated and are yet to be discovered),  was not in our out-dated text books. So, I heard of him much later, by which time the more popular Richard Dawkins had already brain washed me. Additionally, I still find most Indian book stores don’t have any of Gould’s books, which is quite strange and atypical. We are proud to be tolerant to everyone and have subsidized versions of every popular science book, albeit maybe a couple generations older editions.

Stephen Jay Gould should never be compared to Dawkins, ever. But if one does deign to do that, then the only comparison is that one is a true blue scientist with an inherent knack in writing and an acumen in both science and popular science writing, that has gone missing in this generation of biologists, and a goat. A smart, good looking one, who speaks better that the others. But a goat nonetheless, being led by the much beloved ( yet thoroughly dead, in person to yell at his goats) Charles Darwin. As an example for why I love his writing is the excerpt from the above mentioned essay:

‘Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome.’

If there is one other person I can think of, who would write something as dry, tolerating no foolish attempts to prevaricate and make me turn militant with indignation at whoever chose to disagree- it would have to be Stephen King.

And what do you know, they even knew each other. I won’t call them best buddies, mainly because they didn’t call each other that, but they did apparently communicate with each other often and exchanged notes on what one thought of the others latest work. In fact, in the foreword to ‘The TommyKnockers’ King mentions that he asked Gould if he thought that tommy knockers could actually exist, following natural evolution and Gould replied that it was certainly possible (may not be the actual words, had to donate a lot of my King collection while moving). The thing is, I would agree too, creatures that can only solve problems based on what they have around them, without innovation or looking for better solution, yet with a tendency to make everything as perfect as possible ( in their own minds) can and do exist. They are often called scientists. King called them TKs, and were they mean or what! King write an obituary for Gould when he passed away in 2004 (a year before I even came to this country, sob!) in the Boston Globe.

They both are clearly influenced and inspired by Orwell. Have won awards and accolades by peers and adoration by amateurs interested in their respective professions. They were also both criticized sometimes. Unfortunately, in the case of Gould, by fellow scientists who should have understood, or at least respected his insight as well as the creationists who had their own agenda- to call evolution a theory that the dithering scientists don’t have any proof of ( a line on creationists is a waste of time, energy, quarks and even gravity). Meanwhile,  King is called a ‘horror’ writer ( I was told by a bookstore owner that he didn’t have a horror section at all, so didn’t have any books by King). I am sorry, I call ‘ Eat, Pray, Love’ a horror story. Its not that he is not scary, its just that he is scary, while what he proposes seems to be entirely plausible to me and any one with a healthy respect for the unknown and yet to be discovered wonders of our wonderful world. Sure, he doesn’t write for kids, but neither did the Grimm brothers or Lewis Carroll if you are a stickler ( he wrote for his own kids, to tell them, nicely, about the dark, real world).

So, all right, Stephen King does tend to get repetitive or has turned that after some think he wrote ‘IT’ and Stephen Jay Gould wrote tomes (another thing in common between the two), that only real enthusiasts can finish reading, and even I have to confess I have not been able to. Picasso was also repetitive, and I can’t confess to like all his work, but was he not a genius, prolific artist with a unique perspective of the world that he articulately, and accurately ( depending on who is looking at them) depicted? I can’t hear any complains about him! If you or I find King repetitive, it is because we read too much of him, so give him a break and after a couple of months ( and five new books by him), you can feel truly happy reading something again.

Gould will never write again, but what he has given the world ( not literally), will, I am afraid, last longer than Roland’s tales. Because presumably the next few species over the next few geological eons won’t still prefer to read English or the >15 languages King’s work has been translated into. Hopefully, they will be smart enough to know that punctuated equilibrium is a theory based on fact. We are not preparing the world for TommyKnockers here!

Disclaimer: I am not too fond of TommyKnockers, the book, much. It is just appropriate here. My favorites are Hearts in Atlantis and the Dark Tower series.

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