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Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History 1st Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0609601419
ISBN-10: 0609601415
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Editorial Reviews Review

One of this century's most thoughtful and prolific naturalists, Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould looks at the human twists on science in his eighth series of essays taken from Natural History magazine. As only he can, Gould finds questions where others have never looked, and answers where others have been blinded--by their professional rivalries, by their unacknowledged privilege in society, by the dominant world-view at their particular juncture in history. "All great science," he says in the title essay, "indeed all fruitful thinking, must occur in a social and intellectual context--and contexts are just as likely to promote insight as to constrain thought." Gould's gift is being able to identify context, and see patterns in diverse fields or people or moments in history in a way that Darwin saw patterns in living species.

This book is less about clams, worms, and Leonardo than about some evolutionary dead ends in human intellectual history. It's not an easy read. Those who are already Gould fans will find more tantalizing tidbits--no, thick stew--from this fruitful author. Those first-timers drawn by an intriguing title will scratch, frown, fall asleep, swear, and generally want to give up. But don't! Gould is one of those authors that takes some getting used to. With a little patience, his extravagant prose will edify rather than trip you, and his digressions will delight rather than distract. --Lauran Cole Warner

From Publishers Weekly

As in his previous collections of essays from Natural History magazine (Dinosaur in a Haystack, 1996, etc.), here again Gould artfully transports readers through the complex and enchanting realms of the natural world. This time, though, he peers less at nature than at scientists' attempts to understand and explain its wonders. Ranging far and wide through the history of science, Gould's sketches in "humanistic natural history" examine the "grand false starts in the history of natural science"?for he contends that nothing is as "informative and instructive as a truly juicy mistake." In an essay on the Russian paleontologist Vladimir Kovalevsky, for example, Gould applauds his subject's meticulously detailed observations on the fossils of horses and his consequent development of an evolutionary history of the horse as an animal of European descent. Yet, Gould points out, Kovalevsky was mistaken, for horses had evolved in America and migrated to Europe. Another famous "mistake" Gould explores is Emmanuel Mendes da Costas's taxonomy of earth and stones according to Linnaeus's taxonomy of organic life. As usual, Gould proceeds to his conclusions by indirection; he opens his essay on Mendes da Costa, for instance, by disclosing how Linnaeus compared the shape and function of a clam to female sexual anatomy. Gould's elegant prose transmits the excitement and wide-eyed wonder of a scientist who never ceases to be amazed and amused at what he finds. 30 b&w illustrations.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harmony; 1 edition (September 29, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0609601415
  • ISBN-13: 978-0609601419
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,329,804 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) was the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Geology at Harvard University. He published over twenty books, received the National Book and National Book Critics Circle Awards, and a MacArthur Fellowship.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 33 people found the following review helpful By on April 4, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I have greatly admired Stephen J. Gould's essays over the years because I generally find them clear and humane. I tend to agree with most of his evolutionary views, although I think that he pushes too much the roles of contingency and natural selection in the history of life. Certainly, there are other biological mechanisms acting on evolutionary change, some of which have been brilliantly discussed by Stuart Kauffman in his book "At Home in the Universe." In any case, in "Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms," Gould again presents us with some food for thought. I found the essay on the separation of the scientific and religious realms of thought ("Non-Overlapping Magisteria") quite appropriate for people in the United States in particular, but my favorites were "A Lesson from the Old Masters," "Brotherhood by Inversion (or, As the Worm Turns)" and "Triumph of the Root-Heads," not only because Gould is at the top of his writing skills explaining difficult biological or paleontological ideas, but because the phenomena themselves are so incredible. Other essays were somewhat trivial (I really didn't see much in "Can We Truly Know Sloth and Rapacity?") and even forced (despite its undeniable humane message, "The Diet of Worms and the Defenestration of Prague" comes to my mind). I would imagine that, despite Gould's impressive intellectual talents, meeting a monthly schedule for "Natural History" magazine for such a long time in some instances must result in repetition and lack of interesting subjects to write about. If you are an avid Gould reader, however, this book will not dissapoint you.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on August 30, 2000
Format: Paperback
Readers of Gould's other collections of science essays will be delighted with most of the material he presents here. With his usual scope and fine prose, he presents us with carefully researched and captivating subjects. All his essays are stimulating exercises in challenging traditional ways of thinking on a wide spectrum of subjects.
The opening essay on Leonardo da Vinci provides a picture of a thinker challenged by mysterious evidence, expertly addressed. Da Vinci displays more humanity here than revealed by viewing his works. Fossil seashells at mountain peaks were puzzled over for centuries. Leonardo's vivid analysis might have enhanced scientific inquiry greatly if his ideas had not ran counter to church dogmas.
The remaining essays span the usual gamut of resurrecting the reputations of scientists now often lost to view. While restoring some scientists in our estimation, he manages to erode that of others just a bit. Huxley, having been knocked off a high pedestal by an earlier essay of Gould's is subtly chided here once more for racist opinions. Richard Owen, who used some truly underhanded tactics in responding to Darwin's theory of Natural Selection, is given more leniency. Racism is a durable commodity, as Gould himself readily admits in describing his own feelings about taxing pedal-powered vehicles in Africa. It behooves him to grant Huxley a bit of leeway. Huxley, 'Darwin's Bulldog' in his unqualified support for natural selection, must necessarily be besmirched a bit in keeping with Gould's own efforts in evolutionary revisionism.
Having addressed NOMA in comments about Gould's bizarre work ROCKS OF AGES, dwelling on the essay here would be inappropriate.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 7, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Common themes aside, each essay in this collection stands alone well, establishing an interesting point, developing it, and wrapping it up. The issues range all over the place and have their fair share of digressions...But I found that entertaining: Each essay is like a slightly more structured version of a really good conversation with a very intelligent, interesting person over an afterdinner drink (albeit a very one-sided conversation...although I have been known to interject at times). It's all very well written, and readable to the layperson. The jumping around from subject matter to subject matter also keeps it interesting if you're not too hard core about any particular one of them...And I walked away after the 20 or so essays with enough new trivia to make me appear way more well-read than I actually am!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Richard C. Gotshall on September 23, 1998
Format: Audio Cassette
Can you imagine what it must be like to take an essay test in one of Stephen Jay Gould's classes? He's not only a better scholar, he's also a better writer. He demonstrates this admirably once again in Leonardo's Mountain of Clams. The title essay, which opens the collection, explores da Vinci's motivations in exploring fossil history. Gould stands in awe of da Vinci's genius, but he also shows how the scientist/artist was also clearly a figure of his own time -- and a bit of a celebrity to boot. The other essays are solid, but they lack some of the whimsy that made his earlier books so enjoyable. Efrem Zimbalist Jr. is a solid narrator and doesn't intrude on the listening, the way some "name" celebrity readers have been known to do.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Khemprof TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 24, 2002
Format: Hardcover
As Stephen Jay Gould's writes another book of thought provoking essays, here he toys with us with the title to this book.
The title is about two seperate essays and they are well written. Understanding nature itself is what Gould is doing here... making a point in his customary brillance. There are short biographies, puzzles and paradoxes, all the time Gould is leading us through his thought prossess and reasoning.
This is a very good collection of essays and well worth the time to read.
Read and enjoy.
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