Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes by Stephen Jay Gould

I’m going to make an embarrassing confession:  when I was a teenager, I attempted to read one of Stephen Jay Gould’s essay collections and didn’t quite make it through.  I think it was the baseball; something about it turned me off.  Now, twelve years later, I lament not having tried another of his books while younger.  I recently read The Mismeasure of Man and thought it was brilliant.  Now I have read an actual book of his shorter works, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

First off, Gould writes with an amazing balance of intellectual integrity and approachability.  His essays have a hint of humor, which he uses to help the reader through the material.  The topics, even though the book is thirty years old, can be complex for those who don’t have a basic understanding of natural science.  I found his treatment of subjects I knew were really clear.  This made my confidence in my comprehension of the new stuff he presented me with pretty high.

That said, the structure of the book is composed of sections that deal with different subjects: “Sensible Oddities”; “Personalities”; “Adaptation and Development”; “Teilhard and Piltdown”; “Science and Politics”; “Extinction”; and “A Zebra Trilogy”.  Let’s take them one by one.

“Sensible Oddities” contains essays about the strangeness of some aspects of nature.  Gould starts off by presenting us with animals like the anglerfish family, the males of which some species become permanent attachments of the females, becoming little more than a source of sperm with a heart.  He then discusses how these weird characteristics are beneficial adaptations to the species — anglerfish live in the deep and dark ocean, a swathe that is sparsely populated.  From the female’s perspective, an attached gentleman is most likely easier than having to look for him again when you become sexually receptive.  I love how he uses these examples to gently explain how evolution works.

“Personalities” is all about founders of scientific work.  This section will never go out of date, since it’s discussing people who worked in the past to build our current understanding of biology, geology, and related scientific fields.  Gould doesn’t talk about the expected giants in a fawning manner; rather, he discusses their good points and bad, and how they created a framework for the scientists of today to add to.

“Adaptation and Development” is a section that might be considered dated.  The essays here talk about how genes and their expression were debated at the time.  The idea of the selfish gene — and more moderate alternate theories — for example, as an explanation for the replicated sections of DNA that make up a great part of the genome.  I haven’t read extensively on the subject, but I think there are more developed theories now.  That’s not a fault of the book, though — just a fact of the world moving on while the printed word stays the same.

The most fascinating part of the book for me was “Teilhard and Piltdown”.  I knew the basic story of Piltdown Man, the half-human, half-ape skull conglomeration found in a gravel pit in England.  It’s a fraud — hate to burst anyone’s bubble.  I had no idea, however, about the men behind the lie, and I loved reading about Teilhard, the French-born Catholic clergyman who most likely was a willing part of the fleecing of the scientific community for forty years.  His story is an interesting one, somewhat sad and sympathetic at the same time.

I also really liked “Science and Politics”.  The fights detailed within about evolution and its teaching in schools — both historic in the Scopes trial and the then-current fight in Arkansas — are the same ones waged over the same topic today.  It feels like the scientific community is Sisyphus, getting so far and then having to run back down to catch the stone as it slides to the bottom down into Intelligent Design territory again.  No matter how things change, they seem to stay the same, at least as far as the struggle with creationists goes.

In “Extinction”, Gold discusses some theories on how extinction works.  He uses the size of candy bars in one essay to explore how they might “die out” at each increasing price point.  He also talks about the catastrophic theory for how the mass extinction in which the dinosaurs, among other creatures, died out.  That’s a little dated, too; the research is pretty firm on that one now, but Gould presents it as a likely but fairly new idea still in the early stages of development.

Lastly, “A Zebra Trilogy” uses the example of zebras to explore relative closeness of species to one another, how embryonic development can be used to answer questions about adult animals, and how sometimes science can work backwards, getting the idea first and fitting the data to that idea, and how this is detrimental to all of us.

Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes is a wonderful collection.  It’s on a subject I like a lot, and written by a phenomenal popular science author.  I enjoyed it immensely.  Now I just have to atone for my teenage sins and read more of his books.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Filed under 4.5/5, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction

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