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Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History Paperback – December 17, 1996
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From Publishers Weekly
In his seventh volume of witty and erudite essays, Gould casts a wide net, though he always returns to the central theme of evolution. His topics are diverse: Edgar Allan Poe's bestseller, a textbook on shells; Alfred, Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam as an account of the psychology of mourning; the infamous Wannsee Protocol, Hitler's plan for the "final solution of the Jewish question." Gould is a master of making connections?Linnaeus and Erasmus Darwin (Charles's grandfather), the Razumosky brothers, Aleksei and Andrei; King Lear and the importance of negative results. He discusses evolutionary spin-doctoring, fossil whales, movies (Jurassic Park), museums and theme parks. As might be expected, Gould takes a swipe at creationists. Dinosaur measures up in every way to Bully for Brontosaurus; readers will not be disappointed. Illustrations.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
Gould (e.g., Bully for Brontosaurus, Audio Reviews, LJ 3/1/92) is an evolutionary biologist and self-styled "essay machine" who loves "to learn the details and the reasons of people's lives and Nature's ways." This sampling from his seventh harvest of pieces written monthly for Natural History magazine cannot be judged by its cover, for it is packaged abominably. Obnoxious jargon, printed in unreadable type, advertises subjects "from fads to fungus, baseball to beeswax," but the essays aren't listed. The inside, too, is uninformative, promoting six additional titles by the producer. Once the cassettes are picked up off the floor, where the open box deposits them, the labels will provide no hint of what they contain. After enduring superfluous music, the listener is, at last, rewarded with Gould's erudite opinion. It often seems to reflect a single trip to the library, focusing, as it does, on some neglected piece of writing, and listeners may wish that Gould went out more. Also, Gould can be interesting without being convincing and, unless one shares his obsessions, convincing without being interesting. But he upholds an important tradition, and actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (better than conarrator Meredith MacRae) captures admirably the intellectual zest of these reflections. Once the package is replaced, this is a good introduction to Gould's work. For most serious collections.?Peter Josyph, New York
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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He wrote in the introduction section of this 1995 book, "I have been writing the monthly essays that construct these books since January 1974. This volume... includes the piece that I wrote to mark the completion of twenty years, with never a month missed.... As I have written with active passion, I have also watched with odd detachment---as my own essays have grown, shifted outward, and expanded focus through the seven volumes, across my own transition from rebellious youth to iconoclastic middle age... I also remain true to my centering upon evolution... I love doing this monthly work, but all good things must end---and the imminent millennium provides a natural termination .... I will therefore try to write every month until January 2001... and this series should therefore run for two more volumes."
He points out, "We have all heard the story of Napoleon's meeting with the great astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace... Laplace, or so the story goes, gave Napoleon a copy of his multivolume ... 'Celestial Mechanics.' Napoleon perused the volumes and asked Laplace how he could write so much about the workings of the heavens without once mentioning God, the author the universe. Laplace replied: 'Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.' The actual quip, well attested in a surviving letter, is mildly clever, but pretty insipid compared with the legend, and made by the general rather than the scientist... Laplace did present the very weighty first two volumes of his work... Napoleon hefted the books and promised to read them 'in the first six months I have free.' He then invited Laplace to dinner the next day, 'if you have nothing better to do.'" (Pg. 25)
He observes, "Our conventional divisions of Western history are mired in these twinned errors of false categorization and pejorative designation... popular impression still supports a division into classical times ... followed by the pall of the Dark Ages, some improvement in the Middle Ages, and an éclat of culture's rediscovery in the Renaissance. But consider the origin of the two pejorative terms in this sequence... Petrarch devised the term 'Dark Ages' in about 1340 to designate a period between classical times and his own form of modernism." (Pg. 40) He continues, "I write this essay to point out that the most prominent of all scientific stories in this mode---the supposed Dark and Medieval consensus for a flat earth---is entirely mythological... Classical scholars, of course, had no doubt of the earth's sphericity… The flat-earth myth argues that this knowledge was then lost when ecclesiastical darkness settled over Europe... The inspirational, schoolchild version of the myth centers upon Columbus, who supposedly overcame the calumny of assembled clerics... to win a chance from Ferdinand and Isabella... Dramatic, to be sure, but entirely fictitious. There was never a period of 'flat earth darkness' among scholars... all major medieval scholars accepted the earth's roundness as an established fact... both clerical and lay advisers... did pose some sharp intellectual objections to Columbus, but all assumed the earth's roundness... they argued that Columbus could not reach the indies in his own allotted time, because the earth's circumference was too great. Moreover, his critics were entirely right... he did not and could not reach Asia, and Native Americans are still called Indians as a legacy of his error… Purveyors of the flat-earth myth could never deny this plain testimony of Bede, Bacon, Aquinas, and others---so they argued that these men acted as rare beacons of brave light in pervasive darkness... To call Aquinas a courageous revolutionary because he promoted a spherical earth would be akin to labeling ... twentieth-century evolutionists as radical reformers because a peripheral creationist named Duane Gish wrote a pitiful little book during the same years called Evolution the Fossils Say NO!." (Pg. 40-43)
He explains, "Punctuated equilibrium is a theory about the origin and history of species---that is, the stability of individual species counts as the 'nothing' that our theory promoted to the interest and attention of researchers. A different kind of 'nothing' permeates... our consideration of ... the history of phyletic bushes, or groups of species sharing a common ancestry: the evolution of horses, of dinosaurs, of humans, for example... Trends surely exist in abundance, and they do form the stuff of conventional good stories. Brain size does increase in the human bush; and toes do get fewer, and bodies bigger, as we move up the bush or horses. But the vast majority of bushes display no persistent trends through time. All paleontologists know this, but few would ever think of actively studying a bush with no directional growth." (Pg. 128-129) Later, he adds, "I do think that punctuational change writes nature's primary signature---and I am convinced that our difficulty in conceptualizing this style of alteration arises from social and psychological bias rather than from any shyness of nature in printing its John Hancock." (Pg. 136)
He rejects "an assumption that evolution, if not disrupted somehow, follows a path that will sensibly continue into an indefinite future. But no such road exists. The course of evolution is only the summation of fortuitous contingencies, not a pathway with predictable directions. What is the supposed route that evolution had followed for 150 million years before the disruption at the end of the Cretaceous period?... we could not have predicted the outcome at the outset... Evolution has no pathway that goes forward in sameness if not disrupted by externalities." (Pg. 332)
He points out, "Three major groups of mammals have returned to the ways of distant ancestors in their seafaring modes of life... I confess that I have never quite grasped the creationists' point about inconceivability of transition---for a good structural (though admittedly not a phylogenetic) series of intermediate anatomies may be extracted from these groups. Otters have remarkable aquatic abilities, but retain fully functional limbs for land. Sea lions are clearly adapted for water, but can still flop about on land with sufficient dexterity to negotiate ice floes, breeding grounds, and circus rings." (Pg. 362) He continues, "But I admit... that the transition to manatees and whales represents no trivial extension... The loss of back legs, and the development of flukes, fins, and flippers by whales, therefore stands as a classic case of a supposed cardinal problem in evolutionary theory---the failure to find intermediary fossils for major anatomical transitions, or even to imagine how such a bridging form might look or work... Modern creationists continue to use this example and stress the absence of intermediary forms in this ... transition from land to sea." (Pg. 362-363)
He adds, "I am absolutely delighted to report that our usually recalcitrant fossil record has come through in exemplary fashion. During the past fifteen years, new discoveries... have added greatly to our paleontological knowledge of the earliest history of whales. The embarrassment of past absence has been replaced by a bounty of new evidence---and by the sweetest series of transitional fossils an evolutionist could ever hope to find.... Moreover, to add blessed insult to the creationists' injury, these discoveries have arrived in a gradual and sequential fashion... from a tentative hint fifteen years ago to a remarkable smoking gun early in 1994." (Pg. 363) He concludes, "This sequential discovery of picture-perfect intermediacy in the evolution of whales stands as a triumph in the history of paleontology. I cannot imagine a better tale for popular presentation of science, or a more satisfying, and intellectually based, political victory over lingering creationist opposition." (Pg. 369-370)
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.
Ordering Nature by Budding and Full-Breasted Sexuality (pp. 427-441).
Gould delights in juxtaposing literature and science, the familiar and the unexpected. He chooses "Cordelia's dilemma" - her refusal to compete with her sisters in making loud protestations of love for their father, King Lear - as an analogy for "publication bias" - the reluctance of journals to publish boring negative results in favor of more interesting successful experiments. A positive result in a study of AIDS or cancer treatments wins headlines while later failures to duplicate those results are read by few. And most negative results never see publication at all. "Lear cannot conceptualize the proposition that Cordelia's silence might signify her greater love - that nothing can be the biggest something."
In this collection, Gould divides his essays into eight sections. "Heaven and Earth" includes his marvelous experience of the effect of a solar eclipse on the citizens of New York City, and in "Literature and Science," he ruminates on the moral lesson of Frankenstein and Hollywood's subversion of it.
"Origin, Stability, and Extinction" argues that the Cambrian explosion is even more the "key event" in the history of multicellular animals than previously believed, "Stability" includes "Cordelia's Dilemma," "Extinction" includes the title essay on Darwin's view that "all observation must be for or against some view."
"Writing About Snails" delves into women's Victorian writings (I'm reminded of the value of negative results), "The Glory of Museums" explores "Dinomania" and "The Disparate Faces of Eugenics" revisits the hilarious arguments of an eminent scientist who argued that cancer causes smoking.
"Evolutionary Theory, Evolutionary Stories," explores the arguments of Creationism and the origin of evolutionary science's best one liner (in answer to a question on the nature of the Creator) "an inordinate fondness for beetles," and "Linnaeus and Darwin's Grandfather" uses the whimsical observation of the "curious conjunction" of Linnaeus and Gustav III on a Swedish banknote to explore the scientist's classification theories (still used today) and his adherence to a religious Creationism.
Certain themes recur in these essays. Gould is a staunch evolutionist and defends Darwin's theories vigorously, even when pointing out mistakes and misconceptions. He takes Creationism seriously - as a threat to scientific reasoning. His interest in natural history extends to the history of human thinking about nature and science.
His essays are beautifully crafted, full of literary allusions, anecdotes and turns of wit but always to the point. He loves tracking down the precise source and context of oft-used quotes as much as he enjoys tracing the origin of flatworms, and manages to arouse his reader's interest in both. He is not a writer of wasted words. Best of all, Gould's essays are always as thought provoking as they are entertaining.