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The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History Paperback – April 17, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Celebrated paleontologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould has honed and matured his voice over almost 30 years of writing for Natural History. His tenure at that magazine closes with the end of the century, so The Lying Stones of Marrakech is his next-to-last collection of essays from this era. As ever, his works are clever, thoughtful, and inspiring; however, the longtime reader will detect a deeper reflection and a longer view taken by Gould in latter days, perhaps inevitable outcomes of experience and growth. The title essay refers to false fossils carved by Moroccans intent on making a few bucks off of hapless tourists, discusses the case of Beringer's 18th-century fossil hoax, and ends with a plea for a stricter separation between commercial and scientific interests--showing the breadth and scope of his paleontological interests and thinking.

Of course, he also has much to say beyond the confines of his profession: Joe DiMaggio and Dolly the sheep each get respectful treatment from the Gould pen, and he discusses the competing Christian groups sharing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Though his attitudes may have mellowed over time--he's far from the crotchety oldster some feared he'd become--his passion for knowledge and scientific freedom is still radiant. Whether you're an old-school fan of Gould's writings or a newcomer to his delightfully brainy essays, you'll find The Lying Stones of Marrakech a joy to behold. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Harvard paleontologist Gould (The Panda's Thumb; Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle, etc.) first became known to nonscientists through his monthly essays in Natural History magazine, delving into topics involving fossils, geology, evolutionary biology and the history of science. After 27 years of columns, Gould has announced that he will stop writing them at year's end: these 24 essays represent his next-to-last assortment. The first two-thirds of the book address unknown or misunderstood figures from Renaissance, Enlightenment and Victorian natural history. Often Gould uses their careers to debunk triumphalist notions of foreordained, linear scientific progress, reminding us instead "that scientists can work only within their social and psychological contexts." Eighteenth-century scholar Johann Beringer wrote a treatise on the wondrous "lying stones" (Lugensteine) of Wurzburg, a hoax cruel colleagues planted to make him look dumb: "Beringer could not have been more wrong about the Lugensteine, but he couldn't have been more right about the power of paleontology." A colleague of Galileo's, "the sadly underrated Francesco Stelluti" deserves attention both as a pioneer of empirical method and as a demonstration of its limits. A subsequent moving but lightweight segment collects six short pieces, among them commemorations of Carl Sagan and Joe DiMaggio. Other essays retell with vigor and asperity the stories of how some right-wingers have misused Darwin, and of how later racists (some witting, some un-) have misinterpreted genes in order to justify social inequities. Reentering the debate about human genetics and behavior, Gould offers a nuanced view of the nature-nurture interaction: "Both inheritance and upbringing matter," he summarizes, but "an adult human being... cannot be disaggregated into separate components with attached percentages." Gould says he hopes to "fuse the literary essay and the popular scientific article into something distinctive": the digressions, ideas and arguments here demonstrate once again that he has done so. 45 b&w illustrations. (Mar.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Three Rivers Press (April 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0609807552
  • ISBN-13: 978-0609807552
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,952,422 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.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Carlos R. Lugo-Ortiz on June 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Stephen Jay Gould certainly doesn't need any introduction as one of the leading and most convincing voices in evolutionary thinking. However, I'm often surprised that many well-read people haven't heard about him. Not that everybody is obliged to read Gould, but if one wants to round up one's culture, paying attention to some of his ideas, even if one doesn't agree with him, won't do any harm. He always provides good food for thought--and that, at least in my books, marks him as a good writer.
'The lying stones of Marrakech' is no exception to Gould's excellent writing--and it should serve as a good introduction to his world to those that still haven't read him. What strikes the most about this new volume of essays is the humanistic and incisive way in which he debunks some of our most cherished myths, especially those about our perception of science and evolutionary thinking in particular. To be sure, he has done that before--but in this volume he does it with more force.
To me, the best essays in this volume are the last three, in the section he calls 'Evolution at all scales'. I was particularly surprised with the one entitled 'Of embryos and ancestors', where he writes about the incredible discovery of fossilized triploblastic embryos that antedate the famous Cambrian explosion of animal morphology and even the so-called Ediacaran fauna that comes before that explosion. That essay, in my estimation, opens up a new world of interpration on the history of life, where the succesion of animal groups seems to follow a more general pattern than previously thought from almost the very inception of life close to 3.5-3.6 billion years ago.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By taking a rest HALL OF FAME on June 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I am fairly new to the writings of Mr. Gould; happily his writings are extensive, as this book will have newcomers searching for more. Several of the 23 essays threatened at times to go over the head of this reader, this was neatly solved by Mr. Gould as he writes for those who are not equipped with a heavily science-based background, but he never demeans his topics by bringing them down to what some reviewers call "readable". This book made me work a bit, it may require no effort on your behalf, and either way the reader wins.
"How the Vulva Stone became a Brachiopod" stands at one end of the spectrum of the book, and his tributes to Carl Sagan and Joe DiMmaggio at the other. That Mr. Gould can collect essays seemingly so disparate is a tribute to his genius, and to his writing.
The introductions to various essays are wonderful as well. He mentions the famous note once written in a margin; Fermat's Enigma, and ultimately brings you to his topic of Geology, but he starts with a memory of a teacher who he muses might have kept a box marked "pieces of string not worth saving". At other places it might be Mark McGwire's exploits in a sport the Author clearly loves, or a poem by Robert Frost that beautifully ushers in his message.
He gives "Political Correctness" a sharp notation with the paragraph ending "the first time a tragedy, the second as farce". Even the notes he makes in his own margins are stand-alone bits for the reader. His comment on the "illogic and hypocrisy of public attitudes to drugs" starts and ends as a note, the essay hopefully will follow. This is not his last collection of essays but the penultimate, so we have one more to look forward to.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on August 16, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Gould has added another jewel in his diadem of essay collections. With a clear, instructive style, he's able to bring us an array of delightfully informative articles. His outspoken opinions on most subjects deserve our attention and ongoing reflection. He presents arguments well while presenting the foundation for them with enough background to encourage further delving.
His real forte, of course, lies in redeeming historical figures whose reputations are tarnished or faded. Here, he restores such luminaries as Lavoisier, Lamarck, and Buffon, showing how fleeting notoriety is at best. He even dares assault the lofty peak of Darwin. Only a idea as profound and modest as natural selection could survive the passage of time and continuing challenges. Yet labelling Darwin a 'dullard' seems inappropriate for the man who struggled for a generation to bolster his idea with available evidence. 'Dullard', after all, is defined as 'mentally slow' and Darwin was anything but that. Flamboyance isn't highly regarded among the research community. Gould's own siege against natural selection is almost overlooked in this collection. One can only wonder how he would fare solely as an historian of science.
There are few flaws in this book. The publisher might have taken a hand and compiled a bibliography for faster reference. Certainly, Gould's sales must offset the additional cost. Gould, himself, however, makes one peculiar omission. He uses the term 'sound bites' in one section and refers to 'human cultural change' as a 'powerful mechanism of Lamarckian cultural inheritance of acquired characters' in another. It's easy to visualize him with clenched teeth, pacing before his word processor. 'There's GOT to be a substitute for 'meme'!
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