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Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History 1st Edition

4.9 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0609601419
ISBN-10: 0609601415
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

One of this century's most thoughtful and prolific naturalists, Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould looks at the human twists on science in his eighth series of essays taken from Natural History magazine. As only he can, Gould finds questions where others have never looked, and answers where others have been blinded--by their professional rivalries, by their unacknowledged privilege in society, by the dominant world-view at their particular juncture in history. "All great science," he says in the title essay, "indeed all fruitful thinking, must occur in a social and intellectual context--and contexts are just as likely to promote insight as to constrain thought." Gould's gift is being able to identify context, and see patterns in diverse fields or people or moments in history in a way that Darwin saw patterns in living species.

This book is less about clams, worms, and Leonardo than about some evolutionary dead ends in human intellectual history. It's not an easy read. Those who are already Gould fans will find more tantalizing tidbits--no, thick stew--from this fruitful author. Those first-timers drawn by an intriguing title will scratch, frown, fall asleep, swear, and generally want to give up. But don't! Gould is one of those authors that takes some getting used to. With a little patience, his extravagant prose will edify rather than trip you, and his digressions will delight rather than distract. --Lauran Cole Warner

From Publishers Weekly

As in his previous collections of essays from Natural History magazine (Dinosaur in a Haystack, 1996, etc.), here again Gould artfully transports readers through the complex and enchanting realms of the natural world. This time, though, he peers less at nature than at scientists' attempts to understand and explain its wonders. Ranging far and wide through the history of science, Gould's sketches in "humanistic natural history" examine the "grand false starts in the history of natural science"?for he contends that nothing is as "informative and instructive as a truly juicy mistake." In an essay on the Russian paleontologist Vladimir Kovalevsky, for example, Gould applauds his subject's meticulously detailed observations on the fossils of horses and his consequent development of an evolutionary history of the horse as an animal of European descent. Yet, Gould points out, Kovalevsky was mistaken, for horses had evolved in America and migrated to Europe. Another famous "mistake" Gould explores is Emmanuel Mendes da Costas's taxonomy of earth and stones according to Linnaeus's taxonomy of organic life. As usual, Gould proceeds to his conclusions by indirection; he opens his essay on Mendes da Costa, for instance, by disclosing how Linnaeus compared the shape and function of a clam to female sexual anatomy. Gould's elegant prose transmits the excitement and wide-eyed wonder of a scientist who never ceases to be amazed and amused at what he finds. 30 b&w illustrations.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harmony; 1 edition (September 29, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0609601415
  • ISBN-13: 978-0609601419
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #315,121 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I have greatly admired Stephen J. Gould's essays over the years because I generally find them clear and humane. I tend to agree with most of his evolutionary views, although I think that he pushes too much the roles of contingency and natural selection in the history of life. Certainly, there are other biological mechanisms acting on evolutionary change, some of which have been brilliantly discussed by Stuart Kauffman in his book "At Home in the Universe." In any case, in "Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms," Gould again presents us with some food for thought. I found the essay on the separation of the scientific and religious realms of thought ("Non-Overlapping Magisteria") quite appropriate for people in the United States in particular, but my favorites were "A Lesson from the Old Masters," "Brotherhood by Inversion (or, As the Worm Turns)" and "Triumph of the Root-Heads," not only because Gould is at the top of his writing skills explaining difficult biological or paleontological ideas, but because the phenomena themselves are so incredible. Other essays were somewhat trivial (I really didn't see much in "Can We Truly Know Sloth and Rapacity?") and even forced (despite its undeniable humane message, "The Diet of Worms and the Defenestration of Prague" comes to my mind). I would imagine that, despite Gould's impressive intellectual talents, meeting a monthly schedule for "Natural History" magazine for such a long time in some instances must result in repetition and lack of interesting subjects to write about. If you are an avid Gould reader, however, this book will not dissapoint you.
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Format: Paperback
Readers of Gould's other collections of science essays will be delighted with most of the material he presents here. With his usual scope and fine prose, he presents us with carefully researched and captivating subjects. All his essays are stimulating exercises in challenging traditional ways of thinking on a wide spectrum of subjects.
The opening essay on Leonardo da Vinci provides a picture of a thinker challenged by mysterious evidence, expertly addressed. Da Vinci displays more humanity here than revealed by viewing his works. Fossil seashells at mountain peaks were puzzled over for centuries. Leonardo's vivid analysis might have enhanced scientific inquiry greatly if his ideas had not ran counter to church dogmas.
The remaining essays span the usual gamut of resurrecting the reputations of scientists now often lost to view. While restoring some scientists in our estimation, he manages to erode that of others just a bit. Huxley, having been knocked off a high pedestal by an earlier essay of Gould's is subtly chided here once more for racist opinions. Richard Owen, who used some truly underhanded tactics in responding to Darwin's theory of Natural Selection, is given more leniency. Racism is a durable commodity, as Gould himself readily admits in describing his own feelings about taxing pedal-powered vehicles in Africa. It behooves him to grant Huxley a bit of leeway. Huxley, 'Darwin's Bulldog' in his unqualified support for natural selection, must necessarily be besmirched a bit in keeping with Gould's own efforts in evolutionary revisionism.
Having addressed NOMA in comments about Gould's bizarre work ROCKS OF AGES, dwelling on the essay here would be inappropriate.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) wrote many other important books, such as 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, The Lying Stones Of Marrakech, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, etc.

He wrote in the Introduction to this 1998 book, "This eighth volume... differs in emphasis primarily in my own increasing comfort with my unconventional approach to 'natural history' writing... If any overarching theme pervades this body of writing...
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