I have to love Stephen Jay Gould. I like most popular science writers, like Carl Sagan, but how many title their books so that the library clerk comes back with a surprised look on his face? He said to me, “It’s a little thicker than I was expecting.” It was about the thickness I was expecting, and I enjoyed every page of it. Gould has a way of writing about evolutionary science that makes it approachable without dumbing it down.
Gould breaks the book down into several sections, so I’ll talk about each section in turn.
The Scale of Extinction
The book starts out with several essays on modern extinction. I thought he spoke particularly well about the dangers of human-introduced flora and fauna, giving the example of land snails on the south Pacific island of Moorea being killed off by African tree snails. I think it’s an important topic (what with living in Michigan with the fear of Asian carp coming into the Great Lakes), but I also like that he discussed the difference between the wiping out of a particular population as opposed to the extinction of a species. He discusses how unique populations don’t necessarily warrant protection against human encroachment, which I thought was interesting.
Odd Bits of Vertebrate Anatomy
This section contains the eponymous essay. It discusses the history of how vertebrate toes have been viewed — for a long time, it was thought that five was the original number … and then came along older fossils with animals with seven and eight toes. I love how this shows that “scientific certainty” has the potential to change on a dime because of new evidence and new thinkers.
Gould also uses this section to talk about errors Darwin made in his writings. He reminds us that judging Darwin by our own standards leads to knee-jerk reactions without taking into account the times, and he makes the argument that, while some of his thoughts on human behavior and development are racist by today’s standards, they were an attempt to make sense of the world through the nineteenth century’s lens. I liked that essay a lot; it reminded me that my grandchildren will think I have all sorts of old-fashioned and biased ideas, and not to judge too harshly until you see the entire picture.
Gould breaks this up into two sections, but I’ll just treat it as one big group. Here he talks about the true spirit of scientific inquiry, giving the example of his father, who honestly tried to understand concepts that were blurred for him by the sniping back and forth of two authors of different books on the same topic. I thought it was provoking; I liked the fact that he made me think about whether I can respect and trust what someone says based on authority — indeed, it hammered home that logical fallacy for me.
I also loved his article on Bishop Ussher. This is the man who said that the world started in 4004 B.C. Gould explores how he got that date — and provides the reader with a genuine way to respect the man’s technique (though not the motivation or the end result).
This is also in a couple of sections. Gould talks about how fallible memory can be while exploring one of his own false memories, and he also discusses authenticity, which I found especially interesting. How odd it is when something is taken out of its proper context, or when a replica is put in its place. Gould gives the example of London Bridge, which was disassembled, shipped to America, and then reassembled for display. That’s not nearly as awesome as seeing it in its original setting, and I get what he’s saying. If we don’t have the right context for something, it won’t make sense, and, worse, it won’t invoke interest or curiosity. Artificiality deadens the imagination — and I think he’s right.
Gould here talks about the human brain and the nature of genius, with Mozart as the example. Mozart wrote amazing music at a tender age, but remained the same developmentally in every other category. I liked that he pointed this out; smart people (or talented people) are not supermen. They’re normal except in specific ways, and we all have our high points.
We also get to hear about the branching of primates. How sad it is to learn that we aren’t a successful part of that lineage — too few primates to view it any other way — but that does make us precious, I suppose.
Grand Patterns of Evolution
This was probably my favorite part of the book. There’s one section that talks about creatures that had hard parts that fossilized easily that were once thought to be individual species because of the lack of any connecting material. It took until someone found a rare fossil that preserved soft tissue that it was known to be one larger creature! I thought that was great, and also very much in the spirit of this book — science is fallible and science is changing. Neat!
Revising and Extending Darwin
Here, Gould discusses the changes evolutionary theory has gone through. I think this is important information — we all know about Darwin and his ideas, but how many of us know the amount of tweaking those ideas have gone through? Gould talks about his own idea of punctuated equilibrium (although I’m not sure he actually ever uses the term), which states that things change little during down times, and then explode during times of great catastrophe or environmental upheaval. He also discusses neoteny,which is one of the few things I remember from my psychology classes in college — mainly because I think it’s a clever little tool evolution developed.
Reversals — Fragments of a Book Not Written
One of my favorite concepts is in this section. At one point, a species of clam was thought extinct because there were no fossils found of it after a certain point in the strata. Then they were found in the 1800s, alive, in Australian waters. Here Gould drives home the point that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. How could it be? You can’t prove a negative — you just have to hope that you’re going in the right direction, and if there are exceptions, that you can accept them.
Overall, I love Gould’s writing. It shines with a humor and feels researched without being tedious. I think anyone interested in natural history or the history of science would love Eight Little Piggies.