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Gould at the top of his writing skills
on June 13, 2000
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. Also, the essay 'The paradox of the visibly irrelevant', in the same section, puts the dots on the i's as far as our perception of evolutionary trends is concerned. Certainly, Gould writes in that essay, animals adapt to environments in a few generations visible to our human eyes, but do those adaptations have any ultimate meaning in broad evolutionary trends? I won't spoil it to the readers of this short note by saying what Gould's answer is--but I must say that his anwer is cleverly counterintuitive and very cogent.
There are six short pieces about personalities in the world of sport, music, and science. I found this rather uncommon in Gould's collections of essays, but at the same time I found them thoroughly delightful. I was deeply moved by Gould's piece on the death of Carl Sagan, who did so much in popularizing science but who was so scorned by his colleagues because of that. Certainly the 'immortals' of science can deign to talk to plain people about their enterprise; how else can they hope to garner public support for what they do? Carl Sagan took the job--and he did it excellently. Gould's piece is a tribute to a great, humanistic scientist.
In short, I recommend Gould's penultimate collection of essays (23 in total). And I'm sure that those who haven't read him before and start with this volume would like to read more from this great man of science.