26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on January 2, 2001
First published on 1980, The Panda's Thumb is a collection of slightly edited essays from Professor Gould's monthly column at Natural History Magazine.
The thirty one essays are grouped in eight chapters according to their similarities. The Chapters are:
Perfection and imperfection: A trilogy on a panda's thumb - that deals with comparative anatomy;
Darwiniana - that brings the context of Darwin's revolution and the preceding ideas;
Human evolution - that also brings an article on Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse evolution;
Science and politics of Human differences - that shows how science used to foster or justify prejudice and sexism.
The pace of change - in which Gould introduces his and Niles Eldredge's theory of Punctuated Equilibrium;
Early life - a chapter on pre-Cambrian biology or early ideas about pre-Cambrian biology.
They were despised and rejected - on evolutionary dead ends or not quite as in the essay about birds descending from dinosaurs and;
Size and time.
Most essays are very interesting and surprisingly up to date despite the fact that many were written almost thirty years ago. The essays can be read one by one in no particular order since they bring references to each other when necessary. The scope of the book goes way beyond biology including also geology, history of science, gender and race relations, and the ever lasting debate between science and religion. The style is again accessible and witty. After introducing the only exponential equation on the whole book the author almost apologizes.
In my opinion some of the most interesting essays are The Death Before Birth of a Mite; Caring Groups and Selfish Genes; Dr. Down's Syndrome; Nature Odd Couples; Our Allotted Lifetimes; Time's Vastness; and all essays under the chapter The Pace of Change.
The Pace of Change is the most original and still controversial chapter of the book. It introduces Gould and Eldredge's theory of Punctuated Equilibrium that is, in short, a slight correction on Darwin's belief of slow and continuous change throughout the process of evolution.
This is a very interesting and enjoyable book. I doubt anyone interested in science, just by reading a random article of this book, would not feel compelled to read the rest of the book and also other Stephen Gould's books.
Leonardo Alves - January 2001
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
"Panda's Thumb" is the second volume in a series of essay collections culled primarily from Gould's column "This View Of Life" that was published for nearly thirty years in Natural History magazine, the official popular journal of the American Museum of Natural History. Once more readers are treated to elegantly written, insightful pieces on issues ranging from racial attitudes affecting 19th Century science to evolutionary dilemnas such as the origins of the Panda's thumb (Not really a dilemna, though "scientific" creationists might argue otherwise; instead Gould offers an elegant description of how evolution via natural selection works.) and the evolutionary consequences of variations in size and shape among organisms. Gould is differential to the work of other scientists, carefully considers views contrary to his own, and even points the virtues of the faulty science he criticizes. Those who say contemporary science is dogmatic should reconsider that view after carefully reading this volume or any of the others in Gould's series. Instead, what we see are the thoughts of a fine scientist rendered in splendid, often exquisite, prose.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on October 31, 1999
What Carl Sagan is to astronomy, Stephen Jay Gould is to biology. Both men can write about their subjects fascinatingly and in layman's terms without dumbing down the material. That said, Gould is more down-to-earth, with a sense of humor that is more uplifting than caustic. In "Bathybius and Eozoon" (no, that's not a comic book duo) and "Crazy Old Randolph Kirkpatrick," he takes a look back at two of science's more oddball mistakes while reminding us that scientists are more human than shallow stereotypes might allow. "The Great Scablands Debate" questions the widely-held notion that all geological (and, by extension, evolutionary) change happens at a snail's pace. In "Women's Brains" and "Dr. Down's Syndrome," he questions some of the uses to which science has been put in the past, while not (unlike certain feminists who should know better) discarding the whole idea of science altogether. There are even essays on the (supposed) stupidity of dinosaurs and on Mickey Mouse, which might make excellent reading for a child with good reading skills and an incipient interest in science.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2002
The second collection of Gould's articles from Natural History continues to explore Darwin's themes and the resultant ideas since. There's several interesting essays here, including my favorite one in which the evolution of Mickey Mouse is discussed.
One of the essays here dealt with Richard Dawkins' controversial stand (in The Selfish Gene) on genes in which he states that a person is just a gene's way to make another gene. (This is different from normal evolutionary thought in that genes there are the subject of random variation which then is subject to the environment and tested.) Gould is not convinced by Dawkins' theory, mainly because, he says, there is no evidence that genes can be linked to specific attributes, i.e., there isn't an "eye" gene. Gould wrote this some years back, so it will be interesting to see if he revisits this subject now that researchers have indeed discovered the "eye" gene (through testing on flies).
Gould also covers Robert Bakker's theories about warm-blooded dinosaurs (later written up in Bakker's The Dinosaur Heresies) and the link to birds, a good essay for people to review prior to the hullabaloo that will follow Jurassic Park 2 (it's always fun to check up on an author's source material).
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on March 8, 2001
This volume is a collection of Gould's earlier essays for the New York Museum of Natural History. They reflect his marvelous insight into the heart of current arguments in evolution studies, his knowledge of the history of the subject, and his take on life in general. The Panda's Thumb, entitled from one of these essays, is not quite as witty as his later works are, but his personable style and conversational approach make the book very readable.
One of the more interesting topics included is his discussion of the 19th Century rationale for prejudice against women and individuals of non-Western cultures. I found the very circular reasoning on the correlation between brain size and intellect and the misbegotten comparison of developmentally delayed individuals with individuals of other races particularly informative. The same kind of reasoning appears to be enjoying a destructive renaissance among social biologists today, most notably the authors of the notorious Bell Curve. The dissection of this type of faulty reasoning by an expert is instructive and a process well worth learning oneself and teaching to young people.
Some of the more admirable of Gould's writing habits, and well displayed in this book, are his ability to give fair voice to the opposition, his acknowledgement of the work of others, and his capacity to find value even in the faulty work of others. The latter is well demonstrated in his discussion of the 19th Century effort to locate a representative of a basic life form, a link between the living and the inert. In this essay he shows that good science is part hard work, part individual brilliance, and part being able to say "I was wrong in my thinking here."
The casual, approachable style, the brilliant and open mind, the logical approach to argument all make this an excellent book for anyone but would definitely make it a good book for high school students to learn the process of critical thought.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on September 8, 2002
An entertaining and elegantly written collection of discursive essays on natural history and evolution. The nature stories and the anecdotes about eccentric naturalists are interesting.
It has a 1980 original publication date. Perhaps because of this date there is very little about DNA and nothing about HLA and tissue-typing. I shall check his later books to see if he ever got up-to-date on these. (He died a month ago). He was concerned to defend his field as being real science against "haughty and high-riding mathematicians and experimentalists." In fact this sort of biology seems more akin to history and archeology than to hard science, but that adds to its readability rather than detracts from it.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on September 17, 2005
The "argument from design" traces back at least to the medieval theology as a favorite proof for the existence of God. The argument runs that the exquisite design and interrelation of earthly organisms can be explained only by the existence of an Intelligent Designer.
I continue to believe in God, but Stephen Jay Gould's essays in "The Panda's Thumb" is a rather large nail in the coffin of this argument.
In essay after essay, Gould describes nature's mistakes and improvisations, seeming proof against the work of an intelligent designer. For instance, the "thumb" of pandas -- a specialized appendage to strip leaves from bamboo shoots -- is not a true thumb, but a weirdly-designed extension of a wrist bone. Gould demonstrates many other animal adaptations, from orchids to hermit crabs, that use unlikely body parts to perform survival tasks required by later generations of organisms.
Gould's explanation of neoteny - the tendency of organisms to retain anatomical features from childhood - is one of his most fascinating chapters. With a simple mutation, the basis for much uniquely human behavior and anatomy comes in to focus. We humans don't develop elongated snouts like other mammals; we retain our capacity to play throughout our lives rather than abandoning it at puberty; our brains continue to grow after birth; we are helpless and dependent on our parents far longer than other mammals. And in a typically Gouldian play of ideas, he charts the changing facial features of Mickey Mouse over the years to show him being drawn with more infant -like (and therefore human-like) features - rounder head, bigger eyes, shorter snout.
Though Gould is not a theist, "Panda's Thumb" is not an argument against God, but *for* the appropriate use of science to describe the natural world. We theists are well-served by books like this, which give us the ammunition needed to battle cultural forces that seek to blind us to the truth that lies right in front of us in the natural world and of which we are a part.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on April 21, 2000
I'll be short, there are plenty of other good reviews. My main point is that this book, although written over 20 years ago, retains its readability and accuracy because many of the topics it discusses are historical, and also many of the chapters concern general aspects of human nature and science, which are timeless. An excellent overview of evolutionary theory, and well worth a read as an introduction to natural science and evolution for enthusiastic thinkers.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) wrote many other important books, such as Ever Since Darwin,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 Lying Stones Of Marrakech, etc. [NOTE: page numbers refer to the original 343-page hardcover edition.]
He wrote in the Prologue to this 1980 book, "while Darwinian theory extends its domain, some of its cherished postulates are slipping... Many evolutionists (myself included) are beginning to challenge this synthesis and to assert the hierarchical view that different levels of evolutionary change often reflect different kinds of causes... Evolutionary trends may ... not [reflect] the slow and steady alteration of a single large population through untold ages... we must reckon with a multiplicity of mechanisms that preclude the explanation of higher level phenomena by the model of gene substitution favored for the lowest level. At the basis of all this ferment lies nature's irreducible complexity. Organisms are not billiard balls, propelled by simple and measurable external forces to predictable new positions on life's pool table. Sufficiently complex systems have greater richness."
He argues against Wallace's "hyper-selectionism" [i.e., that "every part of every creature is fashioned for and only for its immediate use"]: "It is a caricature of Darwin's subtler view, and it both ignores and misunderstands the nature of organic form and function. Natural selection may build an organ 'for' a specific function or group of functions. But this 'purpose' need not fully specify the capacity of that organ. Objects designed for definite purposes can, as a result of their structural complexity, perform many other tasks as well... Our large brains may have originated 'for' some set of necessary skills in gathering food socializing, or whatever; but these skills do not exhaust the limits of what such a complex machine can do." (Pg. 56-57)
Very controversially, he argues in his "Piltdown Revisited" essay: "But who had foisted such a monstrous hoax upon scientists so anxious for such a find that they remained blind to an obvious solution of its anomalies? Of the original trio, Teilhard [de Chardin] was dismissed as a young and unwitting dupe...Suspicion instead had focused on [Charles] Dawson... The third hypothesis... would render Piltdown as a joke that went too far, rather than a malicious forgery... It is often hard to remember a man in his youth after old age imposes a different persona. Teilhard de Chardin ... was widely hailed as a leading prophet of our age. But he was once a fun-loving young student... He may have had access... to mammalian bones... that formed part of the 'imported' fauna at Piltdown. I can easily imagine Dawson and Teilhard, over long hours in field and pub, hatching a plot for different reasons: Dawson to expose the gullibility of pompous professionals; Teilhard to rub English noses once again with the taunt that their nation had no legitimate human fossils, while France reveled in a superabundance... Teilhard left England to become a stretcher bearer during World War I... Dawson... died in 1916. Teilhard could not return before the war's end. By that time, the three leading lights of British anthropology and paleontology... had staked their careers on the reality of Piltdown... Had Teilhard confessed in 1918, his promising career ... would have ended abruptly... Possible. Just possible." (Pg. 113-114) [In a Postscript, he continues to defend this theory: "if Dawson did not 'officially' discover the molar until July, 1915, how could Teilhard have known about it unless he was involved in the hoax." (Pg. 122-123) He also defends the theory in Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes. However, in his final "summary" work, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, he does not mention Piltdown Man, and only refers to Teilhard incidentally as a "theistic evolutionist"; so hopefully he finally gave up on this speculative theory.]
Perhaps surprisingly, he observes, "Contrary to popular myths, Darwin and Lyell were not the heroes of true science, defending objectivity against the theological fantasies of such 'catastrophists' as Cuvier and Buckland. Catastrophists were as committed to science as any gradualist; in fact, they adopted the more 'objective' view that one should believe what one sees and not interpolate missing bits of a gradual record into a literal tale of rapid change." (Pg. 181) He continues, "The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils. Yet Darwin was so wedded to gradualism that he wagered his entire theory on a denial of this literal record... I wish in no way to impugn the potential validity of gradualism... I wish only to point out that it was never 'seen' in the rocks. Paleontologists have paid an exorbitant price for Darwin's argument... yet to preserve our favored account of evolution by natural selection we view our data as so bad that we almost never see the very process we profess to study... The modern theory of evolution does not require gradual change... It is gradualism that we just reject, not Darwinism. The history of most fossil species includes two features particularly inconsistent with gradualism: 1. Stasis. Most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth... 2. Sudden appearance. In any local area, a species... appears all at once and 'fully formed.'" (Pg. 181-182)
He adds, "[Niles] Eldredge and I believe that speciation is responsible for almost all evolutionary change. Moreover, the way in which it occurs virtually guarantees that sudden appearance and stasis shall dominate the fossil record." (Pg. 183-184) "What should the fossil record include if most evolution occurs by speciation in peripheral isolates? Species should be static through their range... a descendent species should appear suddenly by migration from the peripheral region... Eldredge and I refer to this scheme as the model of 'punctuated equilibria.' Lineages change little during most of their history, but events of rapid speciation occasionally punctuate this tranquility. Evolution is the differential survival and deployment of these punctuations." (Pg. 184)
In his famous essay, "Return of the Hopeful Monster," he asks, "can we invent a reasonable sequence of intermediate forms... between ancestors and descendants in major structural transitions? Of what possible use are the imperfect incipient stages of useful structures? What good is half a jaw of half a wing? The concept of preadaptation provides the conventional answer... I regard preadaptation as an important, even in indispensable, concept. But a plausible story is not necessarily true." (Pg. 189) He continues, "In my own, strongly biased opinion, the problem of reconciling evident discontinuity in macroevolution with Darwinism is largely solved by the observation that small changes early in embryology accumulate through growth to yield profound differences among adults. Prolong the high prenatal rate of brain growth into early childhood and a monkey's brain moves toward human size... Indeed, if we do not invoke discontinuous change by small alteration in rates of development, I do not see now most major evolutionary transitions can be accomplished at all... How could we ever convert an adult rhinoceros or a mosquito into something different. Yet transitions between major groups have occurred in the history of life." (Pg. 192-193)
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2012
This was the first Stephen Jay Gould book I ever read - thirty years ago - and I immediately became a Gould fan. It is the second in the long series of books collecting together the essays he wrote for the journal "Natural History". Despite being three decades old, most of the essays in this book are still a must for anyone interested in evolutionary theory.
All of Gould's writings are excellent: he never fails to make you think. But I like his earlier writings (such as this book) best, because his writing style then was at its most sharp and concise. Gould's later stuff is still well worth reading, but his later writing style could at times be rather repetitive and self-indulgent.
I now apologise because the following summary of Gould's ideas is taken from my Amazon review of "The Richness of Life", a book which brings together a selection of Gould's writings from all of his publications.
Gould's output falls into four main areas. Firstly, there is his contribution to evolutionary theory: he developed (with Niles Eldredge) the theory of punctuated equilibrium (linked to the concept of species selection); he emphasised that evolutionary history consists of a branching bush, not a ladder of progress; he argued that chance (or rather "contingency") plays a large part in evolutionary history; he contended that not every feature of an organism can be explained by functional adaptationism; and he showed that organs can often be adapted and used for purposes which are different from the ones they first evolved to perform.
Secondly, Gould saw that science is a human activity which is influenced by the social, historical and ideological context in which it takes place. His historical biographies of scientists always show them to be products of their times. In this context Gould is also excellent at showing the dialectical interaction between theory and factual evidence in the development of scientific knowledge.
The third area of Gould's work is his lifelong battle against those crude biologically deterministic theories (such as sociobiology and evolutionary psychology) which try to explain away human behaviour as being mainly determined by our genes. An example of what Gould was up against is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins refers to living creatures as "lumbering robots" programmed by their genes. And in an interview published in "New Statesman" (26th March 1999), while discussing cloning, Dawkins said: "Cloning Saddam Hussein would be horrible. Cloning David Attenborough, or someone we all admire, might be fine."
This is the sort of genetic determinism that Gould demolishes. Does Dawkins really think that the nastiness of the dead dictator and the niceness of the admirable Attenborough are simply the result of their genes, and nothing to do with their upbringing, experiences, social circumstances and life-history? Gould has pointed out that nature's clones (identical twins) have already shown us that having identical genes does not mean having the same personality.
Unlike Dawkins, Gould has a grasp of the subtle and complex interaction between our genetic potentiality and the environmental factors which play an enormous part in making us what we are. Gould also points out the real danger of genetic determinism: it suggests that social problems and inequalities are the inevitable result of our biology rather than things that we can put right.
Fourthly and finally, Gould has written about the relationship between science and religion. Gould (an agnostic) believed that there need be no inevitable conflict between the two as long as each sticks to its own sphere and leaves the other alone. Religion should leave science to get on with explaining nature, and science should leave moral debates to religion. I think Gould is on shaky ground here. He is understating the conflict between science and religion; he is playing down the reactionary role that religion still plays in society; and he is failing to analyse the SOCIAL roots of morality. He rightly says that we should not leave moral decisions just to scientists, but I would also say that we shouldn't leave them to priests either!
Nevertheless, even though I am an atheist myself, I do not believe that Richard Dawkins' crude version of atheism is any better than Gould's "softness" on religion. Dawkins is like the philosophers of the Enlightenment in that he thinks that religious beliefs can be dispelled by directly confronting them with rational, scientific arguments. He fails to understand that atheists have to do more than just show religion to be superstitious nonsense: it is necessary to understand its social roots and to get rid of the oppressive and alienating social conditions which make people turn to what Marx, in the famous "opium of the people" passage, called "the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless circumstances." (For more on this see my review here on Amazon of Dawkins' book, "The Selfish Gene".)