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Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin Paperback – September 16, 1997

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The Upright Thinkers by Leonard Mlodinow
A book for science lovers and for anyone interested in creative thinking and in our ongoing quest to understand our world. Learn more | See similar books

Editorial Reviews Review

The human mind has a trusty device for simplifying a complex world: reduce to averages and identify trends. Although valuable, the risk is that we ignore variations and end up with a skewed view of reality. In evolutionary terms, the result is a view in which humans are the inevitable pinnacle of evolutionary progress, instead of, as Stephen Jay Gould patiently argues, "a cosmic accident that would never arise again if the tree of life could be replanted." The implications of Gould's argument may threaten certain of our philosophical and religious foundations but will in the end provide us with a clearer view of, and a greater appreciation for, the complexities of our world. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

In his first single-subject book of original writing since Wonderful Life (LJ 9/1/89), Harvard paleontologist Gould examines trends in natural variation throughout organic evolution, thereby discrediting the abstract ideas of eternal forms, fixed essences, and intrinsic progress. His insightful study even applies to sports systems, accounting for the apparent extinction of .400 hitting in baseball. In light of fossil evidence and overwhelming biodiversity, he concludes that there is no linear pattern or ultimate design to evolution. Instead, life is a spreading web or a branching bush; variation, rather than progression, is nature's expression of excellence. Consequently, our species is not the inevitable end-goal of evolution. It remains for Gould to consider in his next book the ethical and theological implications of his nonprogressive and naturalistic world view. (Are bacteria really as important as human beings?) Gould's book is rather a dense read for the average patron, but his ideas are important. Recommended for all academic and public library science collections.
-?H. James Birx, Canisius Coll., Buffalo, N.Y.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 244 pages
  • Publisher: Three Rivers Press; Reprint edition (September 16, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780609801406
  • ISBN-13: 978-0609801406
  • ASIN: 0609801406
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,739,947 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

57 of 60 people found the following review helpful By Christopher Nelson on August 4, 2004
Format: Hardcover
After seeing that there were already some 40 or so reviews of this wonderful book, and having read it some years ago I was reluctant to add another. But, being a fan of Gould's magnificent "Wonderful Life" (1989) and seeing some negative, and misleading reviews of this particular book, I had to chime in. To begin with, Gould's books are highly readable and enjoyable as he has a great capacity to relate objective science to the subjective world. "Full House" will be challenging to you if you do not already understand or buy into Darwinism. If not, you'll definitely take issue with his seemingly harsh conclusions (i.e. "Humans are here by the luck of the draw, not the inevitability of life's direction or evolution's mechanism" p.175). The book is about diversity and "the spread of excellence" on earth. Consequently, it puts man in his place (just another organism amongst many, and quite minor compared to bacteria) amongst greater geologic history; and this can be a bit difficult to swallow at first. But read on!

Utilizing baseball and the disappearance of .400 ave. hitting as one major example to illustrate the nature of evolution, Gould shows through statistics how one aspect of the game (hitting) has declined over time, while the rest (pitching & fielding) have increased in skill level. It all makes perfect sense. That's not to say one can't argue with him (although he's now dead), but Gould's contributions to evolutionary theory can be controversial to the unconverted - especially the religious (namely, Catholics & those with firmly held, comfortable beliefs in Manifest Desitiny).
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Marc Ruby™ HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on May 22, 2006
Format: Paperback
Having been buried by statistics courses in college, it has always amazed me how people build entire empires out of the slimmest of statistical information. Making judgments based purely on an 'mean' response is an invitation to the error of thinking that a change in average means a trend is developing, or that you are even likely to get an average response in any particular case. To be able to make an even educated guess one has to look at the mode, the median, and various statistical distributions. Even then, it's possible to be wrong, but at least you will have an excuse.

This book by the late Stephen Gould is one of the best discussions of statistical fallacy I've ever seen. Gould starts out with the story of is confrontation with a form of cancer that is almost invariably fatal within a very short time period. Or rather, the modal life span after diagnosis is very short. Gould was a survivor, and his discussion of how the mode has very little to do with individual cases, and how that the studies are skewed by being left limited (there are no negative life expectancies) is enlightening.

Having made his initial point, Gould elaborates it by turning to the disappearance of the .400 batting average. Because there is a lot more information about baseball than there is about a rare form of cancer, Gould is able to look at another form of statistical skew, where there may very well be an upper physical limit, and the field involves multiple variables (pitching, hitting, etc.). By the time he is done the reader will be confident that batting is doing fine, and ready for the real reason Gould wrote Full House - just who really is the boss of earth.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 20, 2000
Format: Paperback
I like Gould's style. He is a scientist and not a philosopher. So many other books of this type present purely philosophical, or even worse religious, arguments which have nothing to do with reality (you can "prove" anything with pure logic if you make the correct initial assumptions). This sort of pap is an insult the reader's intelligence. Stephen Gould makes a compelling and logical argument which is supported by empirical evidence and not assumptions. Before reading this book I accepted the popular myth that evolution tends to produce complexity. This book has reduced my ignorance.
I thought the link between baseball and evolution was clever. Gould is a master at finding connections between seemingly disparate subjects. I
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Brad on March 12, 2003
Format: Paperback
I had read a lot about Stephen Jay Gould, but had only read some of his essays, and never one of his book-length works, before a few weeks ago I noticed a copy of Full House at a sale of old stock from the local central library. The press on Gould has been particularly voluminous this year, after he died in May, aged 60, to the cancer he had evaded earlier in his life -- and so he had been higher on my list (you know, the list, the neverending, constantly shifting ranked order of titles of works you want to read, most of which are destined to remain keys to unexplored worlds at your own death). Finding the book was particularly fortuitous for me, however, since one of the big problems I have been wrestling with during the year has been why evolution should drive towards complexity; and I didn't even know, buying Full House, that this was the central question it addresses. As soon as I started, I realised how lucky the find was, and felt straight away that I was talking one-on-one with Gould about the problem; at every stage, he would anticipate my questions with his answers, as if I had been whispering doubts in his ear as he composed it. The book is really quite a bit longer than it needs to be to answer the question, in the end -- and it isn't long, a well-spaced 230 pages, with illustrations. The solution, in the grand theme of intellectual revolutions, is actually a dissolution -- an argument that it is a mistake to see evolution as driving anywhere at all. Complexity turns out to be something that results given enough free play in a randomly varying system, rather than a pre-ordained endpoint towards which the system is aimed.Read more ›
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