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Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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... I suppose that a groping effort toward the formulation of a humanistic natural history must unite the disparity... These essays probe, arrange, join, and parry the details within a diverse forest of data, located both in nature and in the documents of human struggle---all to access an inherently confusing but infinitely compelling world... I pay my homage to evolution in the preface to every volume of this series, and will now do so again. Of all general themes in science, no other could be so rich, so deep, so fascinating in extension, or so troubling (to our deepest hopes and prejudices) in implication... The wondrously peculiar human brain arose as a product of evolution, replete with odd (and often misleading) modes of reasoning originally developed for other purposes, or for no explicit purpose at all. The brain then discovers the central truth of evolution... And thus, is a kind of almost cosmically wicked recursion, evolution builds the brain, and the brain invents both the culture that must face evolution and the modes of reasoning that might elucidate the process of its own creation."
He suggests, "If we dismiss those scientists now judged wrong, only valuing them if they eventually saw the light, we will miss a grand opportunity to address one of the most elusive and portentous questions in scholarly life. What is the nature of genius; why, among brilliant people, so some make revolutions and other die in the dust of concepts whose time had begun to pass in their own day? What is the crucial difference between Darwin's transcendent greatness and [James Dwight] Dana's merely ordinary greatness?... I do not know the answer... but we can surely specify a key ingredient. Somehow, for some reason of psyche or quirk of mind, some impetus of social life or some drive of temperament, Darwin was driven to challenge, to be fearless in bringing down an intellectual universe... Dana, for other properties of the same attributes, could not, dared not, abandon the traditional hope and succor of centuries..." (Pg. 117-118)
He comments on Pope John Paul II's October 22, 1996 statement strongly supporting evolution before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, "the Catholic Church ... has long accepted both the legitimacy of evolution as a field of study and the potential harmony of evolutionary conclusions with Catholic faith... I knew that Pope Pius XII (not one of my favorite figures in twentieth-century history, to say the least) had made the primary statement in a 1950 encyclical entitled 'Humani Generis'... Catholics could believe whatever science determined about the evolution of the human body, so long as they accepted that, at some time of his choosing, God had infused the soul into such a creature. I also knew that I had no problem with this argument---for, whatever my private beliefs about souls, science cannot touch such a subject... Pope Pius XII... had properly acknowledged and respected the separate domains of science the theology. Thus, I found myself in total agreement with Humani Generis---but I had never read the document in full..." (Pg. 273)
He continues, "I quickly got the relevant writings from... the Internet. (The Pope is prominently on line, but a luddite like me is not. So I got a cyberwise associate to dredge up the documents. I do love the fracture of stereotypes implied by finding religion so hep and a scientist so square.)... I finally understand why the recent statement seems so new, revealing, and worthy of all those headlines. And the message could not be more welcome for evolutionists, and friends of both science and religion... Humani Generis focuses on the Magisterium (or Teaching Authority) of the Church... We may, I think, adopt this word and concept to express the central point of this essay and the principles resolution of supposed 'conflict' or 'warfare' between science and religion. No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority---and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA, or 'non-overlapping magisteria'). The net of science covers the empirical realm... The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry ... To cite the usual clichés, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of age; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven." (Pg. 273-274)
He summarizes, "Pius had grudgingly admitted evolution as a legitimate hypothesis that he regarded as only tentatively supported and potentially (as he clearly hoped) untrue. John Paul, nearly fifty years later, reaffirms the legitimacy of evolution under the NOMA principle... but then adds that additional data and theory have placed the factuality of evolution beyond reasonable doubt.... I am not, personally, a believer or religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice. But I have great respect for religion, and the subject has always fascinated me, beyond almost all others (with a few exceptions, like evolution and paleontology)... I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving, concordat between our magisteria---the NOMA concept. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not merely a diplomatic solution... Religion is too important for too many people to permit any dismissal or denigration of the comfort still sought by many folks from theology. I may, for example, privately suspect that papal insistence on divine infusion of the soul represents ... a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature. But I also know that the subject of souls lies outside the magisterium of science... As a moral position... I prefer the 'cold bath' theory that nature can be truly 'cruel' and 'indifferent'... because nature does not exist for us... and doesn't give a da_m about us (speaking metaphorically). I regard such a position as liberating, not depressing... But I recognize that such a position frightens many people, and that a more spiritual view of nature retains broad appeal..." (Pg. 280-282)
He argues, "All life on earth... shares an astonishing range of biochemical similarities... Two possible scenarios... might explain these regularities: either... no other chemistry can work, or these similarities only record the common descent of all organisms on earth from a single origin that happened to feature this chemistry as one possibility among many...We cannot ask a more important question about the nature of life. But, ironically, we also cannot begin to answer this question with the data now at our disposal... If a phenomenon happens only once, we simply cannot know ... whether other 'replays' might yield markedly different results. Unfortunately, all life on earth---the only life we know---represents... the results of a single experiment, for every earthly species evolved from the common ancestry of a single origin. We desperately need a REPETITION of the experiment... in order to make a judgment. Mars represents our first real hope for a second experiment..." (Pg. 353)
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.