The Gouldian Knot

As many of you know, I am a self professed hard core Stephen Jay Gould fan, and as such you may wonder why I have never included a review of his works during the past three years of book reviews. This is curious indeed. Unfortunately, I don't have a good reason for this. This month I will attempt to correct my grievous omissions.

For those of you not familiar with Gould or his works I will give a brief summation. Stephen Jay Gould is a paleontologist, an evolutionary biologist, and a historian in natural history. He is the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, Professor of Geology, and Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. He naturally teaches and publishes professionally and is a popular speaker. Gould has written a total of fourteen books for the general reader; seven of this count are collections of essays originally published monthly in Natural History magazine. One of his more recent single topic books was Wonderful Life in which he discussed his views of the Burgess Shale fauna and its implications for evolutionary theory and life on earth. Oh yes, in his spare time he is a big baseball fan.

Gould's latest work, Dinosaur in a Haystack, hit the bookstores late in 1995. This $25.00, 480 page volume is published by Harmony Books (Most of his other books are published by W. W. Norton). Dinosaur in a Haystack is another collection of Natural History magazine essays, thirty four in all, divided into eight main sections: Heaven and Earth; Literature and Science; Origin, Stability, and Extinction; Writing About Snails [Gould's specialty]; The Glory of Museums; Disparate Faces of Eugenics; Evolutionary Theory, Evolutionary Stories; and Linnaeus and Darwin's Grandfather.

There are some common themes which run through all of the works by Gould which I have read including this one. I hesitantly offer the following list at the risk of having missed something: Evolution is a fact with a few competing theories on the mechanism which makes it work; the history of life on earth does not represent a progression of ever increasing complexity culminating in man at the pinnacle; all human beings, all races, all sexes are equal; science, both now and throughout history, is biased by societal pressures existing at the time.

In general, I found Dinosaur in a Haystack to be one of the more interesting of Gould's essay collections. I know that it won't be possible for me to present summaries or descriptions of each essay so I will touch upon a few to whet your intellectual appetite.

How many of you learned as I did that people in the Dark Ages thought the earth was flat and that it took Christopher Columbus to prove the earth was round? Not so. Gould's essay "The Late Birth of a Flat Earth" will properly show you that the flat earth myth was contrived in the late nineteenth century. You'll also learn the who, the why, and how it hung on in modern textbooks.

"Lucy on the Earth in Stasis" presents a readable and understandable account of the Eldridge - Gould theory of punctuated equilibrium as a mechanism for evolution. This is a much better presentation than the brief explanation I gave for this theory in my review of Eldridge's book Reinventing Darwin last spring.

The essay which prompted the book title, "Dinosaur in a Haystack," illustrates some of the ways of science as applied to the dinosaur extinction question. Gould reviews the technique of science wherein observation is used to test prevailing theories: did dinosaurs become extinct gradually or suddenly?

"The Invisible Woman" recounts the stifling of women throughout history in fields of science. Gould begins this essay with an example from a recent Soviet history text that has expunged the contribution (as it where) of Stalin to Russian history. He uses this overt example of eliminating one individual from written history to lead into the more subtle elimination of women's contributions throughout history.

One of my favorite essays was "Dinomania" in the section called The Glory of Museums. Gould talks at length about robotic dinosaurs in museum exhibits and critiques the movie version of Jurassic Park. He laments at our human behavior as akin to that of sheep or lemmings. This all leads to the current sorry state of natural history museums today - that of becoming nothing more than theme parks. Gould proposes that museums have lost their reason for being by replacing "traditional" exhibits illustrating the natural beauty and complexity of the world with glitzy motorized exhibits with bells and whistles which rarely sustain our interest. Hmmmm.

In "Hooking Leviathan by Its Past" we get a Gouldian explanation of the failure of creationism. As Gould recounts some of the creationist arguments against evolution, he tells of one favorite: the lack of intermediate forms in the fossil record, specifically between whales and their land living forebears. Recent discoveries in the past three years have produced these missing intermediates from a land living animal with functional hind legs through forms with lesser and lesser hind limbs.

I am finding that I had more favorite essays in this volume than I should take space writing about them. This brief account should give you a flavor for Stephen Jay Gould as well as for Dinosaur in a Haystack. If you'd rather not shell out $25.00 for this hardback, try one of Gould's previous collections available in paperback: Eight Little Piggies, Bully for Brontosaurus, The Flamingo's Smile, Hen's Teeth and Horses Toes, The Panda's Thumb, and Ever Since Darwin.

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