Stephen Jay Gould was one of the most famous American paleontologists, evolutionary biologists and science essayists in the second half of the twentieth century. He was born in 1941 in Queens, New York, and died of cancer in 2002 in Manhattan, at the age of sixty. His father was a court stenographer and his mother was an artist. Gould developed a love for palaeontology at the age of five when his father first took him to the American Museum of Natural History.
Gould began his career at Harvard University in 1967 as an assistant professor of geology and paleontology. He soon became a full professor, and remained at Harvard for the rest of his professional life, teaching biology, geology, and the history of science. Gould was one of the most famous scientists in his field, thanks to several unique and controversial theories, including punctuated equilibriums and the concept of evolutionary spandrels.
Gould was also an incredibly prolific science writer. In the twenty-five years spanning 1977 to 2002, he published twenty-two books, including nine collections of essays from his monthly column “This View of Life” from Natural History magazine—itself a publication of the American Museum of National History
“The Creation Myths of Cooperstown” is a science essay in which Gould explores the power of creation myths to explain such diverse phenomenon as paleontological hoaxes, the origins of baseball, and the beginning of life in utero. He ultimately contrasts the psychology of false creation myths with the scientific truth of evolutionary explanations.
The essay boasts Gould’s trademark discursive style, using science, history, and his own personal voice to showcase the subtle connections between apparently disparate subjects.
At the beginning of the essay, Gould uses both historical facts and his intimate knowledge of paleontology to explain how the Cardiff Giant hoax was perpetrated in 1869.
Gould then offers, through the lens of evolutionary biology, a historical investigation into the origins of baseball. Ultimately, he concludes that an evolutionary story is more accurate than the current creation myth: baseball was not “created” in America, but rather “evolved” out of the British game baseball.
Gould references two important theories he himself helped popularize—punctuated equilibriums and spandrels—when making his case for baseball’s evolutionary story.
In the essay’s final section, Gould attempts to reframe the abortion debate regarding when a fetus is considered alive. He ultimately rejects an “origin” story for the beginning of life, in favor of an evolutionary one that views development as more of a continuum.
“The Creation Myths of Cooperstown” first appeared in the November 1989 issue of Natural History magazine, in Stephen Jay Gould’s monthly column “This View of Life.” (Gould wrote over 280 essays for the magazine during his twenty-seven years as its columnist.)
In the essay’s final section on abortion, Gould critiques a controversial Supreme Court ruling from July 1989. This ruling upheld a Missouri anti-abortion law stating that “the life of each human being begins at conception.” Gould quotes this phrase and argues for it being yet another example of a creation myth.
Full-color advertisements appear opposite the essay on every other page. Products include the Chrysler New Yorker Fifth Avenue sedan, non-fiction history books with titles like The Story of a Confederate Warrior and The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, and ceramic figurines of animals similar to those found in the American Museum of Natural History. These advertisements seem to target an affluent audience of middle-aged men with children of their own; Gould’s defense of abortion can be understood as addressing this specific readership.
The article’s six pages each feature a single black and white photograph; almost all of these photos feature historical figures involved in baseball’s creation myth.
Gould republished “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown” in his 1991 essay collection Bully for Brontosaurus. This book was the fifth of nine collections ultimately culled from Gould’s “This View of Life” pieces.
Gould made a single change to this republished version, replacing a period with a colon in the first sentence of the penultimate paragraph. His Natural History version read: “To state the most obvious example in our current political turmoil. Human growth is a continuum, and no creation myth can define an instant for the origin of human life” (24). His Bully for Brontosaurus version reads: “To state the most obvious example in our current political turmoil: Human growth is a continuum, and no creation myth can define an instant for the origin of human life” (57). This important change helps to better set up and clarify Gould’s argument for using evolutionary stories to contextualize the abortion debate.
All of the black and white photographs from the Natural History version are reprinted in the Bully for Brontosaurus version.
Gould, Stephen Jay. “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown.” Natural History Nov. 1989: 14-24. Print.
Gould, Stephen Jay. Bully for Brontosaurus. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1991. Print.