Sunday, July 03, 2016

Blast from the past - Stephen Jay Gould on the "Planet of the Bacteria"

An influential article in my career development was this piece on the Washington Post in 1996 by Stephen Jay Gould. I was already convinced bacteria were important and interesting.  But it was nice to see the person who got me interested in evolution (via his books and then a class I took from him in college) emphasizing the bacteria.  Here is a link to the Post archive of it.

PLANET OF THE BACTERIA - The Washington Post

Well, my mom sent me a copy of it and I kept it all these years.  Just scanned it so, I thought I would share what it looked like in the paper since this is VERY different from looking at the text on the Post archive site.

I like the last part too - an ad for the American Society for Microbiology that went with the article. 


  1. Cool! S. J. Gould was one of my favorite writers when I was a kid so it was fun to see this.

    PS I'm not surprised that the trees would look so different now. But even in '96, the idea that E. coli was an abundant bacterium in the gut was out of date, wasn't it?

  2. I wonder if this was somewhat influenced by the question and answer session after a 1992 lecture he gave at the MBL. I was at the Molecular Evolution course there and a bunch of us went over to hear his talk he was giving at the MBL unrelated to the course. It was a lecture about biodiversity that eventually turned into his book "Full House" a few years later.

    Anyway, he seemed to give short shrift to bacterial evolution and diversity, saying something to the effect of "The earliest bacteria we know of are pretty much like bacteria today" and in general seemed to think there wasn't much interesting evolutionary history in bacteria other than recent events conferring antibiotic resistance and the like. Various microbiologists in the audience, including my then advisor Gary Olsen, challenged him on that view. At any rate, I'm glad he changed his tune by a few years later.

    1. well, in 1990, when I was working in Colleen Cavanaugh's lab, he was definitely at least peripherally interested in bacteria. He had a PhD student, Emily Cobabe, who was looking for signatures of chemosynthesis in bivalve fossils and thus was basically doing microbiology ... so he may have gotten but microbe bug a bit before MBL in 1992


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