Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Book Club: Ever Since Darwin

Ever Since Darwin
Reflections in natural history
Stephen Jay Gould 1977
WW Norton & Company New York New York

This is apparently the first book written by S.J. Gould, the first of many. It's actually not so much a purpose-written book as it is a collection of essays originally written for a magazine (Natural History) and slightly modified to fit into a mostly-coherent book. Despite this fractured origin, the book is quite well written, and flows from chapter to chapter very well. So well, in fact, that I wonder how frustrating it would have been to read these essays in the magazine, one at a time, out of order, and missing some essays without a full subscription dating back through several years - the list of copyrights inside the front cover lists five years. I've not previously read much S.J. Gould, though for years I've been telling myself that I should. Perhaps eight or nine years ago I bought Full House, but I didn't finish reading it - perhaps I was turned off by one too many baseball analogies. I hope that Full House is in the collection of my books that my parents are currently looking after, so that I can read it in July when I get my books in Guelph. In other words: I really like reading S.J. Gould. This book is great.

The essay form - 33 very short chapters organised into eight sections - suits both Dr. Gould's writing style and the book's theme very well. Dr. Gould is often described as an "essayist", probably because this book was the first of a series of such essay collections, and because he's very good at the form. I wonder how many English professors, disgruntled at the combination of poor writing skills and general contempt for the humanities among the science majors, have turned to Dr. Gould's work to demonstrate the value, and the communicative power and grace, of a well-written essay on a scientific topic. Had I been encouraged to read Dr. Gould in my first-year English class (full disclosure: I took it in second year, I did reasonably well (I think I got a B+), and I enjoyed the class), perhaps I would have been turned on to other forms of scientific writing much earlier. Having read this book, and looking forward to more (I've also got what I think is the fourth book in the series: The Flamingo's Smile), I now understand a bit more the intellectual environment in which several great popular science books were written - especially the interactions between Dr. Gould, E.O. Wilson, and Richard Dawkins (these and other essays, Sociobiology, and The Selfish Gene, respectively). In some of the essays near the end of the book, those concerned with the use and abuse of (and abscense of data for) human evolution, Dr. Gould also mentions other scientists whose books I have read and enjoyed, such as Desmond Morris. Harsher criticisms are justifiably reserved for those who use their scientific credentials as a cover for their distinctly non-scientific opinions, especially "scientific racism", a particularly foul form of pseudoscientific a priori unreasoning.

The essays were written between 1973 and 1977. Thirty years ago was apparently a quite different time from the point of view of an evolutionary biologist. While academic ideas had apparently shifted to something not too different from the current views (of most, but not all, aspects of the field), popular perceptions, which were what Dr. Gould was writing to, must have been strange and primitive, if I am to trust and make inferences from his careful explanation of certain "new" ideas. Was the belief that all life could be divided into two kingdoms - animals and plants - still widespread in the mid-1970's? One essay is devoted to explaining the rationale for the "five kingdoms" view - which has since been replaced by the "three domains" model of top-tier taxonomy. Another essay is devoted to Velikovsky - a psuedoscientist who tried (rather creatively, I must admit) to reconcile current scientific knowledge (circa 1950) with the book of Genesis. Carl Sagan tears Velikovsky a new one much more viciously, though not more thoroughly, in a book roughly contemporary with Ever Since Darwin - but I can't remember which of Dr. Sagan's books I read that included this literary violence.

Dr. Gould manages to reveal, in some essays, a real sence of "wow neato!" as weird and wonderful facts about the world are used to illustrate key points of evolutionary theory. Clams with fish-mimics on their posteriors, matricidal flies, and the story of the Irish Elk (Megaloceros giganteus) are, cleverly, organised together into the section "Odd Organisms and Evolutionary Exemplars". Very clever of me to pick up on that, no?

This book has undergone several printings, the picture above is the closest I could find to the cover of the one I have. Mine appears to be the 1977 printing; lists several later printings and an audiocassette edition. Perhaps the only thing about this book that irritates me is that there is no explanation for the cover illustration - I don't know who originally drew it, or in what context. The cracked "chaos" label at the bottom-left, with a ridiculous chain-of-being sequence of animals spiraling in to Darwin, presiding over them like a circus-master, looks to me like a reaction to Darwin's theories from a creationist of the late 1800s. But I don't know, since I can't find any information about the picture.


King Aardvark said...

For about half a year, I've been planning to read some Gould books from the public library, but I never seem to get around to it. I know I should, but that's procrastination for you.

You're right: the first thing I noticed was that the cover was a peculiar jumble.

Carlo said...

One thing I'd love to be admired for is my abilities as an 'essayist' (Someday, obviously I'm nto there yet!)

I love Gould's writting (minus his religious concessions [Rocks of Ages and a bit in The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister's Pox] for the same reason that I used to love 'Connections' by James Burke. Their erudite examination of the relationships of history and evolution impose a sense of wonder of nature within me that no religious hoopla ever could.

I'm currently reading my way through Gould (next is The Panda's Thumb). It's too bad the biology section in Hamilton chapters has no Gould...

Carlo said...

I've had a few glasses of wine as I type... pardon the misspellings. I'm not that bad of an 'essayist'!

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