Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who unlocked the mysteries of evolution for millions of readers with essays on the panda's extra thumb and helped bring natural history museums to popular audiences, died Monday at his home in New York after a long battle with cancer.
Gould, a Harvard professor best known for modifying Charles Darwin's theories, died at 10:35 a.m., a spokeswoman at his Harvard office said. He was 60.
"Most of us just appreciated that in Steve we had someone who put this very positive public face on paleontology, who was able to reach an audience that most of us would never reach and not nearly so effectively," said Andrew Knoll, a colleague of Gould's at Harvard University for 20 years. "He really was paleontology's public intellectual."
Gould became one of America's most recognizable scientists, not only for his voluminous and accessible writings, but for his participation in public debates with creation scientists and even his disagreements with other evolutionary theorists.
Gould championed the teaching evolutionary science in school curricula, arguing that it not be challenged by creation science, whose advocates made Gould an enemy.
But he also engaged in vigorous disputes with his fellow evolutionary theorists, particularly for his theory of "punctuated equilibria." Gould argued that evolution occurred in relatively rapid spurts of species differentiation rather than via gradual, continuous transformations. He believed short-term contingencies could play as important a role as irresistible evolutionary pressure.
Some of Gould's best-known works are "Ever Since Darwin," "The Panda's Thumb," which won an American Book Award in 1981, and "The Mismeasure of Man," which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for 1982.
A Harvard professor since age 26, he wrote chatty, educational essays using unusual details such as the flamingo's smile or the panda's extra thumb to introduce readers to more general themes in an exciting way.
In "The Panda's Thumb," discussing a type of mite, he wrote: "Fifteen eggs, including but a single male, develop within the mother's body. The male emerges within his mother's shell, copulates with all his sisters and dies before birth.
"It may not sound like much of a life, but the male Acarophenax does as much for its evolutionary continuity as Abraham did in fathering children into his 10th decade."
Technically his field was fossils but Gould taught geology, biology, zoology and the history of science, and wrote about everything from chocolate bars to baseball to Bahamian land snails -- on which he was probably the world's foremost expert.
"Science is not a heartless pursuit of objective information," Gould wrote in his 1977 book "Ever Since Darwin." "It is a creative human activity, its geniuses acting more as artists than as information processors."
In July 1981, when he was 40, Gould learned he had abdominal mesothelioma, a rare and deadly form of cancer that is usually associated with exposure to asbestos.
Gould researched the disease and wrote in an article in Discover magazine in June 1985: "The literature couldn't have been more brutally clear. Mesothelioma is incurable, with a median mortality of only eight months after discovery."
He went on to say that "most people, without training in statistics, would read such a statement as, 'I will probably be dead in eight months.'"
But he added, "all evolutionary biologists know that variation itself is nature's only irreducible essence. ... I had to place myself amidst the variation."
During his illness, Gould has continued to write and teach while undergoing experimental treatment for the disease.
Born on Sept. 10, 1941, in New York, Gould remembers his first sight, at age 5, of a 20-foot high reconstructed dinosaur in New York's American Museum of Natural History.
"As we stood in front of the beast," he recalled, "a man sneezed; I gulped and prepared to utter my Shema Yisrael. But the great animal stood immobile in all its bony grandeur and as we left, I announced that I would be a paleontologist when I grew up."
He received his bachelor's degree from Antioch College in 1963 and a doctorate from Columbia University. For his doctoral dissertation, Gould investigated the fossil land snails of Bermuda. Gould also did work toward his doctorate at the American Museum of Natural History.
Survivors include his second wife, Rhonda Roland Shearer, with whom he had no children. He had two sons with his previous wife.