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The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould Hardcover – May 17, 2007

ISBN-13: 978-0393064988 ISBN-10: 0393064980
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Harvard professor and National Book Award winner Gould was one of science's best ambassadors to the general public until his death at 60 in 2002. These 44 essays represent his best-known pieces from his books and from essays for Natural History magazine, as well as never before published speeches. The editors have selected pieces on a wide range of subjects—from the ever-shrinking Hershey Bar, to his and Niles Eldredge's theory of punctuated evolution and Freud's adaptation of the (now abandoned) biological notion of recapitulation—which showcase Gould's immense curiosity as well as his skill at explaining even the most obscure topics with clear and vivid language. Autobiographical essays are followed by scientific ruminations on evolutionary theory and how it has been understood, misunderstood and misused, ever since Darwin put pen to paper. This collection demonstrates Gould's passion for life as well as his enthusiasm for, and awe at, the "majesty" of "the continuity of the tree of life for 3.5 billion years." Gould's many fans, as well as new readers, should find this collection intriguing as well as entertaining, an eminently suitable last hurrah for an amazing thinker. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School—One of the most widely known and accessible of science writers, Gould reveled in living in a period of rapid scientific progress. Exploring this "best of all enterprises at the best of all possible times," he communicates his wonder and enthusiasm. The editor draws from hundreds of essays published from the 1970s until the scientist's death in 2002, organizing his choices into eight sections. The book starts with some of the best-loved autobiographical pieces (for example, Gould's scientific attitude defines his fight with cancer; he illustrates problems in statistics through examples in his favorite sport, baseball). Subsequent essays offer insights and anecdotes about other scientists, and then represent key points in the evolutionary scientist's career. In the final sections, Gould focuses his laser eye on the blunders and misunderstandings when sociology, psychology, culture, and religion have interacted with and impinged upon one another. The informative and provocative essays on topics like racism, misogyny, and creationism (including "Darwin and the Munchkins of Kansas") are sure to spark discussion. Readers browsing this volume will be fascinated and inspired by the man's creativity-and swept away by the surprising and often humorous tactics he employs to draw them in. Though his many other books are likely to stay in print, this anthology presents, with a Gould-like liveliness and breadth of perspective, a taste of his entire lifetime of insight. For collections that have room for only one volume of his writing, this is the essential one.—Christine C. Menefee, formerly at Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 672 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (May 17, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393064980
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393064988
  • Product Dimensions: 0.7 x 0.2 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #545,602 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

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

107 of 116 people found the following review helpful By Avid Reader on August 9, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Anyone familiar with Gould will immediately understand and appreciative my little quip of a title. Stephen J Gould remains the quintessential scientist - a thirst for knowledge, an original thinker, king of the scientific essay for the layman, a genius in multiple areas. Yet he was also involved in the details of everyday life - he was a family man who loved singing in great choirs, he quoted Gilbert & Sullivan by heart, lived & breathed baseball and was always grateful he lived in a nation where he could fulfill his dreams. His passing left a huge hole that has yet to be filled.

This book is a large collection of essays - both from his many books of Natural History essays and from his crowning achievement, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Oddly, we begin with the last essay, the incredibly beautiful and poetic, "I Have Landed". The book is arranged as groups of writings demonstrating the wide scope of his thought on so many areas. There are autobiographical essays (including one on his reaction upon learning he had cancer) and biographical ones on people famous and not so famous, on Evolutionary Theory (technical essays in which he outlined his iconoclastic take on Darwinian theory, namely punctuated equilibrium as a method for explaining sudden appearances of species without transitional forms). Other subjects include, form & shapes, sociobiology, racism and finally religion. The last piece, the story of whales and transitional forms, is a tour de force, outstanding by any measure.
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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful By P. Webster on September 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is a very useful selection from the writings of the late Stephen Jay Gould, with an excellent introduction by Steven Rose. It does not correspond exactly with my choice of Gould's best and most important pieces, but it's hard to criticise the editors when Gould's output was so large and varied. It is certainly a good starting point for anyone who is new to Gould, and will no doubt lead them to look at his other work.

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.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Midwest Book Review on September 1, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Stephen Jay Gould is a leading scientist of modern times deemed a 'Living Legend' by Congress in 2000, and his THE RICHNESS OF LIFE offers up a collection of the range of his writings, from his most famous essays and selections from his many major books to speeches and articles. It's an entertaining mix of science and social observation and while its appearance is weighty, even general-interest library holdings will find it holds strong appeal, especially to patrons who like scientific reflections tailored for lay audiences.
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31 of 39 people found the following review helpful By R. Schultz VINE VOICE on March 22, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This book isn't necessarily meant to be "The Best" of Stephen Gould. It aims more at giving readers an overview of the main themes of his life's work. So perhaps it suffers a little from having to include the most representative essays rather than the most interesting ones. For sheer liveliness, I think you would be better off to get some of Gould's more limited annual collections, such as "The Panda's Thumb" and "Bully for Brontosaurus." These latter have the indulgence of including quirkier, more exploratory musings.

However this is still a very worthwhile collection - with one exception. When you get about midway through to the essay entitled "The Structure of Evolutionary Theory" - skip over it without a backward glance. A typical sentence in this long exercise reads, "The classical and most familiar category of internal channeling (the first, or empirical, citation of constraint as a positive theme) resides in preferred directions for evolutionary change supplied by inherited allometries and their phylogenetic potentiation by heterochrony." Whaaaaa? The editor does warn that this essay was intended for a professional audience. Still, I didn't think Gould was capable of such utterly opaque writing, whoever his target audience, and my opinion of him was accordingly lowered a bit.

Then other tripping points throughout the book are Gould's repeated use of words such as "contingent" and "epitome." He clearly demonstrates his ongoing fondness for "contingency," but usually (although not always) uses that word in its more obscure sense of "accidental." This is contrary to the meaning most of us give the word colloquially, as when we say, "I will marry you contingent on your earning more money.
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