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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.
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HALL OF FAMEon June 28, 2000
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.
One of his introductions refers to Christopher Wren who was laid to rest in what Mr. Gould feels is his finest architectural achievement, the reconstructed St. Paul's Cathedral. Mr. Wren's Son arranged for no great monument rather an inscription that read, "If you are searching for his monument look around". Mr. Gould suggested it was a tad grandiose; someday it may be inscribed for another genius that the person "read around"
A great collection from a great mind. Easy, not always, worthwhile, every bit.
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HALL OF FAMEon August 16, 2000
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'! Richard Dawkins' cultural replicator is superbly described in Susan Blackmore's THE MEME MACHINE, but Gould is unlikely to concede any point to Dawkins.
Given that, Gould's writing skills and breadth of subjects makes this book a welcome addition to any library. His frequent asides make delightful reading [the reference to Amtrak is particularly cogent], giving the reader a pause in a sometimes intense flow of information. The lightly conveyed personalizations bring a fine sense of Gould's humanity to these columns. The next volume will be equally welcome.
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on May 1, 2000
I've been a fan of Stephen J. Gould for a long time, and this book is no exception. The essay about the phoney fossils available in Marrakech, Morocco and by Beringer were especially fascinating and thought provoking. To what extent does the fact that fossils are viewed as "collectables" inevitably lead to people creating faux-fossils? Also interesting were the essays on unintended (misclassification) of fossils. Sometimes even first-rate scientists were mislead.
I also enjoyed the essay on how fleeting fame can be. It's interesting to think about which of today's newsmakers will our grandchildren remember.
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on September 30, 2000
Lacks the world-defining punch of his earlier work ("Wonderful Life", for example) and as such probably won't make you wake your spouse up in the middle of the night to edify them.
And it's a little long-winded in parts.
All that considered, the most important 2 points I can make are: it's very good read and I'll buy anything written by this guy.
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on May 21, 2000
As I read this book, I had one of Philip Johnson's books on the table next to me. (Johnson is a law professor who preaches against Darwinism because the theories cast doubt on his religious beliefs.) What a world of difference! As an example, the Book of Genesis says trees were producing "fruit with seeds in them," then the sun and stars were created, and then animals, in that order (without regard to how long a yom, or day, was.) Gould points out that the first animals appear in the fossil record about 600 million years ago. Trees didn't appear until 150 mya. Common sense would suggest that trees came first, so animals could eat their fruit, but that's wrong. But Gould goes on to offer solid evidence about the origin of animals. Examination of chert (silicon dioxide)reveal another 100 million years of embrionic animal fossils, too small to be seen without a microscope. The Creatinists used to accuse Darwinists of manufacturing fossils, but how do you manufacture microscopic fossils preserved in silicon dioxide? Johnson says that deism (God created the universe and left Nature to run it) is inferior to his brand of theism, which claims that God continues to take an active role by performing miracles. If animals existed as microscopic forms for 100 million years, how exactly does the Genesis account make sense? It doesn't. I was constantly struck by the way Gould gave example after example, while Johnson simply preached his own beliefs, without any regard to them being true or not.
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on July 16, 2002
The first three sections of this book have essays from the magazine Natural History about the history of "natural history." They are drier and of less general interest, covering people and issues in the development of the science. This certainly would not be the perfect introduction to the late Stephen Jay Gould's writing and research styles. . .
Nonetheless, they are well-researched and written in Gould's loving detail for the accurate story, in contrast to the historical myth. You might find yourself skimming the details of animal classifications to find the gems that remind us of major shifts in scientific thinking.
The second three sections are written to a broader audience and start with obituaries of Carl Sagan, Mel Allen and Joe DiMaggio. These essays are more readable (though Gould continues his love for parenthetical additions at least twice on every page). In this latter half of the book, Gould covers subjects such as social Darwinism; Dolly (the cloned sheep) and the nurture vs. nature argument; ways in which evolution is visible among living species; and competitive equilibrium in nature. Here Gould ensures that his essays are relevant to current social issues.
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Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) wrote many other important books, such as Ontogeny and Phylogeny,Ever Since Darwin,The Panda's Thumb,Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes,The Flamingo's Smile,Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History,Bully for Brontosaurus,Eight Little Piggies,Dinosaur in a Haystack,Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms,The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, etc.

He wrote in the Preface to this 2000 book, "In the fall of 1973, I received a call from Alan Ternes, editor of Natural History magazine. He asked me if I would like to write columns on a monthly basis... (Until that day, I had published only in technical journals.) The idea intrigued me, and I said that I'd try three or four. Now, 290 monthly essays later... I look only a little way forward to the last item of this extended series---to be written, as number 300 exactly, for the millennial issue of January 2001. One really should follow the honorable tradition of quitting while still ahead, a rare form of dignity chosen by such admirable men as Michael Jordan and Joe DiMaggio... This ninth volume of essays will therefore be the penultimate book in a series that shall close by honoring the same decimal preference lying behind our millennial transition." He adds, "I can only thank readers who have joined me on this rocky journey. For only the conjunction of growing fellowship and increasing knowledge... can validate the accident of our existence by our free decision to make maximal use of those simple gifts that nature and evolution have granted us."

He observes, "The idea that observation can be pure and unsullied (and therefore beyond dispute)---and that great scientists are, by implication, people who can free their minds from the constraints of surrounding culture and reach conclusions strictly by untrammeled experiment and observation, joined with clear and universal logical reasoning---has often harmed science by turning the empiricist into a shibboleth... we must also act as watchdogs to debunk the authoritarian version of the empiricist myth---and to reassert ... that scientists can work only within their social and psychological contexts. Such an assertion does not debase the institution of science, but rather enriches our view of the greatest dialectic in human history: the transformation of society by scientific progress, which can only arise within a matrix set, constrained, and facilitated by society." (Pg. 31)

He points out, "We must not equate the fading of a name though time with the extinction of a person's influence. In so doing, we propagate one of the many errors inspired by our generation's fundamental confusion of celebrity with status.... under certain definite circumstances---all exemplified in Buffon's life and career---a loss of personal recognition through time actually measures the spread of impact, as innovations become so 'obvious' and 'automatic' that we lose memory of sources and assign their status to elementary logic from time immemorial. (I do not, of course, challenge that truism that most fadings record the passage of a truly transient reason for celebrity; Linda Tripp and Tonya Harding come immediately to my mind, but surely not to the consciousness of any future grandchildren.)" (Pg. 76)

He notes, "Lyell presented the three pillars of Pozzuoli as a triumphant icon for both key postulates of his uniformitarian system---the efficacy of modern causes, and the relative constancy of their magnitude through time... Now I admire Lyell enormously as a great thinker and writer, but I have never been a partisan of his uniformitarian views... But my own observations of the pillars of Pozzuoli seemed only to strengthen and extend his conclusions on the extent and gradual character of geological change during historical times." (Pg. 160)

He admits, "A prominent eureka myth holds that Charles Darwin invented evolution within the lonely genius of his own mind, abetted by personal observations made while he lived on a tiny ship circumnavigating the globe. He then, as the legend continues, dropped the concept like a bombshell on a stunned and shocked world in 1859. Darwin remains my personal hero, and 'The Origin of Species' will always be my favorite book---but Darwin didn't invent evolution and would never have persuaded an entire intellectual community without substantial priming from generations of earlier evolutionists (including his grandfather). These forebears prepared the ground, but never devised a plausible mechanism... and they never recorded, or even knew how to recognize, enough supporting documentation." (Pg. 188)

He argues, "We suppose that we have introduced sufficient caution in qualifying statements about 'genes for' traits by admitting their only partial, and often quite small, contribution to an interactive totality. Thus, we imagine that we may legitimately talk of a 'gay gene' as long as we add the provisio that only 15 percent of sexual preference records this cause. But we need to understand why such statements have no meaning and therefore become ... worse than merely false. Many genes interact with several other factors to influence sexual preference, but no unitary and separable 'gay gene' exists. When we talk about a 'gene for' 10 percent of behavior A, we simply commit the old Davenportian fallacy on the 'little bit pregnant' analogy." (Pg. 280)

Besides being a highly creative evolutionary theorist, Gould was also a brilliant writer and an engaged "public intellectual." His presence is sorely missed on the scientific and literary scene.
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on September 15, 2000
I've occasionally read Mr. Gould's essays in Natural History, so I knew what to expect from this book: interesting insights into natural history and human nature accompanied by a tendency to take too long to say something. And that's what we get. Gould's choice of topics and command of the subjects is - with some small but notable exceptions - superb. He is clearly a renaissance man, and his humanistic approach to science is enjoyable to read and thought-provoking.
However, some of his essays really needed editing, and one piece on some geological minutae once again proves how dull a topic geology can be. His liberal POV matches mine, but he's yet another scientist sho can't find one nice thing to say about religion. And we don't need any essays from him on baseball. I love baseball too, but I don't read science books to read about Joe DiMaggio any more than I read Mike Lupica to learn about Einstein. I guess it's nice to be so famous that you can be self-indulgent every time.
Still, this book has a lot going for it if you like your science hard and your approach to weighty matters light. Just don't expect the same kind of breeziness that Arthur C. Clarke's essay tend to have.
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on January 31, 2007
I am just getting around to several works that have rested on my shelves, unreviewed since first read. I just completed "I Have Landed", Gould's last compilation of essays and it is indeed one of the best. But that's always been the "problem" with attempting to classify Gould's writing. First of all, the essay must be two levels - the first (the "catch") is the particular story, moral, fact or tale that serves as the germ of the essay. The second level is how it relates to natural history. The elusive nature of his writing (at least the essays) and their wide breadth of human knowledge make it difficult to choose "favorites" much less "the best".

Gould was an iconoclast who reveled in his deviltry. His fights with the deterministic brand of Evolutionists is legendary and yet he emerged in a stronger position politically if not scientifically. Therefore I loved the section on the French scientists, particularly his take on Lamarckism. Throughout he stresses excellence, the non-progressivity of Evolution, the idea that morality was NOT simply a biological outcome and that choices are what drives human society. For sheer bravura, nothing could beat "Of Embryos and Ancestors" where he ranges from early life on Earth to the nature of fossils to the unbroken lineage of life on Earth while keeping us entertained with tales of Scientific infighting and pure chance resulting in spectacular discoveries.

My Grade = A
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