- Hardcover: 384 pages
- Publisher: Harmony; 1 edition (April 11, 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0609601423
- ISBN-13: 978-0609601426
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 14 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,702,760 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History Hardcover – April 11, 2000
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Celebrated paleontologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould has honed and matured his voice over almost 30 years of writing for Natural History. His tenure at that magazine closes with the end of the century, so The Lying Stones of Marrakech is his next-to-last collection of essays from this era. As ever, his works are clever, thoughtful, and inspiring; however, the longtime reader will detect a deeper reflection and a longer view taken by Gould in latter days, perhaps inevitable outcomes of experience and growth. The title essay refers to false fossils carved by Moroccans intent on making a few bucks off of hapless tourists, discusses the case of Beringer's 18th-century fossil hoax, and ends with a plea for a stricter separation between commercial and scientific interests--showing the breadth and scope of his paleontological interests and thinking.
Of course, he also has much to say beyond the confines of his profession: Joe DiMaggio and Dolly the sheep each get respectful treatment from the Gould pen, and he discusses the competing Christian groups sharing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Though his attitudes may have mellowed over time--he's far from the crotchety oldster some feared he'd become--his passion for knowledge and scientific freedom is still radiant. Whether you're an old-school fan of Gould's writings or a newcomer to his delightfully brainy essays, you'll find The Lying Stones of Marrakech a joy to behold. --Rob Lightner
From Publishers Weekly
Harvard paleontologist Gould (The Panda's Thumb; Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle, etc.) first became known to nonscientists through his monthly essays in Natural History magazine, delving into topics involving fossils, geology, evolutionary biology and the history of science. After 27 years of columns, Gould has announced that he will stop writing them at year's end: these 24 essays represent his next-to-last assortment. The first two-thirds of the book address unknown or misunderstood figures from Renaissance, Enlightenment and Victorian natural history. Often Gould uses their careers to debunk triumphalist notions of foreordained, linear scientific progress, reminding us instead "that scientists can work only within their social and psychological contexts." Eighteenth-century scholar Johann Beringer wrote a treatise on the wondrous "lying stones" (Lugensteine) of Wurzburg, a hoax cruel colleagues planted to make him look dumb: "Beringer could not have been more wrong about the Lugensteine, but he couldn't have been more right about the power of paleontology." A colleague of Galileo's, "the sadly underrated Francesco Stelluti" deserves attention both as a pioneer of empirical method and as a demonstration of its limits. A subsequent moving but lightweight segment collects six short pieces, among them commemorations of Carl Sagan and Joe DiMaggio. Other essays retell with vigor and asperity the stories of how some right-wingers have misused Darwin, and of how later racists (some witting, some un-) have misinterpreted genes in order to justify social inequities. Reentering the debate about human genetics and behavior, Gould offers a nuanced view of the nature-nurture interaction: "Both inheritance and upbringing matter," he summarizes, but "an adult human being... cannot be disaggregated into separate components with attached percentages." Gould says he hopes to "fuse the literary essay and the popular scientific article into something distinctive": the digressions, ideas and arguments here demonstrate once again that he has done so. 45 b&w illustrations. (Mar.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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He wrote in the Preface to this 2000 book, "In the fall of 1973, I received a call from Alan Ternes, editor of Natural History magazine. He asked me if I would like to write columns on a monthly basis... (Until that day, I had published only in technical journals.) The idea intrigued me, and I said that I'd try three or four. Now, 290 monthly essays later... I look only a little way forward to the last item of this extended series---to be written, as number 300 exactly, for the millennial issue of January 2001. One really should follow the honorable tradition of quitting while still ahead, a rare form of dignity chosen by such admirable men as Michael Jordan and Joe DiMaggio... This ninth volume of essays will therefore be the penultimate book in a series that shall close by honoring the same decimal preference lying behind our millennial transition." He adds, "I can only thank readers who have joined me on this rocky journey. For only the conjunction of growing fellowship and increasing knowledge... can validate the accident of our existence by our free decision to make maximal use of those simple gifts that nature and evolution have granted us."
He observes, "The idea that observation can be pure and unsullied (and therefore beyond dispute)---and that great scientists are, by implication, people who can free their minds from the constraints of surrounding culture and reach conclusions strictly by untrammeled experiment and observation, joined with clear and universal logical reasoning---has often harmed science by turning the empiricist into a shibboleth... we must also act as watchdogs to debunk the authoritarian version of the empiricist myth---and to reassert ... that scientists can work only within their social and psychological contexts. Such an assertion does not debase the institution of science, but rather enriches our view of the greatest dialectic in human history: the transformation of society by scientific progress, which can only arise within a matrix set, constrained, and facilitated by society." (Pg. 31)
He points out, "We must not equate the fading of a name though time with the extinction of a person's influence. In so doing, we propagate one of the many errors inspired by our generation's fundamental confusion of celebrity with status.... under certain definite circumstances---all exemplified in Buffon's life and career---a loss of personal recognition through time actually measures the spread of impact, as innovations become so 'obvious' and 'automatic' that we lose memory of sources and assign their status to elementary logic from time immemorial. (I do not, of course, challenge that truism that most fadings record the passage of a truly transient reason for celebrity; Linda Tripp and Tonya Harding come immediately to my mind, but surely not to the consciousness of any future grandchildren.)" (Pg. 76)
He notes, "Lyell presented the three pillars of Pozzuoli as a triumphant icon for both key postulates of his uniformitarian system---the efficacy of modern causes, and the relative constancy of their magnitude through time... Now I admire Lyell enormously as a great thinker and writer, but I have never been a partisan of his uniformitarian views... But my own observations of the pillars of Pozzuoli seemed only to strengthen and extend his conclusions on the extent and gradual character of geological change during historical times." (Pg. 160)
He admits, "A prominent eureka myth holds that Charles Darwin invented evolution within the lonely genius of his own mind, abetted by personal observations made while he lived on a tiny ship circumnavigating the globe. He then, as the legend continues, dropped the concept like a bombshell on a stunned and shocked world in 1859. Darwin remains my personal hero, and 'The Origin of Species' will always be my favorite book---but Darwin didn't invent evolution and would never have persuaded an entire intellectual community without substantial priming from generations of earlier evolutionists (including his grandfather). These forebears prepared the ground, but never devised a plausible mechanism... and they never recorded, or even knew how to recognize, enough supporting documentation." (Pg. 188)
He argues, "We suppose that we have introduced sufficient caution in qualifying statements about 'genes for' traits by admitting their only partial, and often quite small, contribution to an interactive totality. Thus, we imagine that we may legitimately talk of a 'gay gene' as long as we add the provisio that only 15 percent of sexual preference records this cause. But we need to understand why such statements have no meaning and therefore become ... worse than merely false. Many genes interact with several other factors to influence sexual preference, but no unitary and separable 'gay gene' exists. When we talk about a 'gene for' 10 percent of behavior A, we simply commit the old Davenportian fallacy on the 'little bit pregnant' analogy." (Pg. 280)
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.
And this collection leaves me with the mystery as to how he produced so many essays, on schedule, even with the best of research help.
His real forte, of course, lies in redeeming historical figures whose reputations are tarnished or faded. Here, he restores such luminaries as Lavoisier, Lamarck, and Buffon, showing how fleeting notoriety is at best. He even dares assault the lofty peak of Darwin. Only a idea as profound and modest as natural selection could survive the passage of time and continuing challenges. Yet labelling Darwin a 'dullard' seems inappropriate for the man who struggled for a generation to bolster his idea with available evidence. 'Dullard', after all, is defined as 'mentally slow' and Darwin was anything but that. Flamboyance isn't highly regarded among the research community. Gould's own siege against natural selection is almost overlooked in this collection. One can only wonder how he would fare solely as an historian of science.
There are few flaws in this book. The publisher might have taken a hand and compiled a bibliography for faster reference. Certainly, Gould's sales must offset the additional cost. Gould, himself, however, makes one peculiar omission. He uses the term 'sound bites' in one section and refers to 'human cultural change' as a 'powerful mechanism of Lamarckian cultural inheritance of acquired characters' in another. It's easy to visualize him with clenched teeth, pacing before his word processor. 'There's GOT to be a substitute for 'meme'! Richard Dawkins' cultural replicator is superbly described in Susan Blackmore's THE MEME MACHINE, but Gould is unlikely to concede any point to Dawkins.
Given that, Gould's writing skills and breadth of subjects makes this book a welcome addition to any library. His frequent asides make delightful reading [the reference to Amtrak is particularly cogent], giving the reader a pause in a sometimes intense flow of information. The lightly conveyed personalizations bring a fine sense of Gould's humanity to these columns. The next volume will be equally welcome.