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Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 432
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Gould’s final essay collection is based on his remarkable series for Natural History magazine—exactly 300 consecutive essays, with never a month missed, published from 1974 to 2001. Both an intellectually thrilling journey into the nature of scientific discovery and the most personal book he ever published.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06341-9
    Subjects: General Science, Biological Sciences, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. iii-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  3. Preface
    (pp. 1-10)
  4. I. Pausing in Continuity

    • 1 I Have Landed
      (pp. 13-26)

      As a young child, thinking as big as big can be and getting absolutely nowhere for the effort, I would often lie awake at night, pondering the mysteries of infinity and eternity—and feeling pure awe (in an inchoate, but intense, boyish way) at my utter inability to comprehend. How could time begin? For even if a God created matter at a definite moment, then who made God? An eternity of spirit seemed just as incomprehensible as a temporal sequence of matter with no beginning. And how could space end? For even if a group of intrepid astronauts encountered a...

  5. II. Disciplinary Connections:: Scientific Slouching Across a Misconceived Divide

    • 2 No Science Without Fancy, No Art Without Facts: The Lepidoptery of Vladimir Nabokov
      (pp. 29-53)

      No one ever accused Francis Bacon of modesty, but when England’s lord chancellor proclaimed his “great instauration” of human understanding and vowed to take all knowledge as his province, the stated goal did not seem ludicrously beyond the time and competence of a great thinker in Shakespeare’s age. But as knowledge exploded, and then fragmented into disciplines with increasingly rigid and self-policed boundaries, the restless scholar who tried to operate in more than one domain became an object of suspicion—either a boastful pretender across the board (“jack of all and master of none,” in the old cliché), or a...

    • 3 Jim Bowie’s Letter and Bill Buckner’s Legs
      (pp. 54-70)

      Charlie Croker, former football hero of Georgia Tech and recently bankrupted builder of the new Atlanta—a world of schlock and soulless office towers, now largely unoccupied and hemorrhaging money—seeks inspiration, as his world disintegrates, from the one item of culture that stirs his limited inner self: a painting, originally done to illustrate a children’s book (“the only book Charlie could remember his father and mother ever possessing”), by N. C. Wyeth of “Jim Bowie rising up from his deathbed to fight the Mexicans at the Alamo.” On “one of the happiest days of his entire life,” Charlie spent...

    • 4 The True Embodiment of Everything That’s Excellent
      (pp. 71-89)

      On December 8, 1889, the day after the triumphant premiere of The Gondoliers, their last successful collaboration, W. S. Gilbert wrote to Sir Arthur Sullivan, in the generous tone so often expressed in his letters, despite the constant tension of their personal relationship: “I must again thank you for the magnificent work you have put into the piece. It gives one a chance of shining right through the twentieth century with a reflected light.” John Wellington Wells, the eponym of their first successful full-length comic opera The Sorcerer (1877), employed a “resident djinn” who could “prophesy with a wink of...

    • 5 Art Meets Science in The Heart of the Andes: Church Paints, Humboldt Dies, Darwin Writes, and Nature Blinks in the Fateful Year of 1859
      (pp. 90-110)

      The intense excitement and fascination that Frederic Edwin Church’s Heart of the Andes solicited when first exhibited in New York in 1859 may be attributed to the odd mixture of apparent opposites so characteristic of our distinctive American style of showmanship—commercialism and excellence, hoopla and incisive analysis. The large canvas, more than ten by five feet, and set in a massive frame, stood alone in a darkened room, with carefully controlled lighting and the walls draped in black.

      Dried plants and other souvenirs that Church had collected in South America probably graced the room as well. Visitors marveled at...

  6. III. Darwinian Prequels and Fallout

    • 6 The Darwinian Gentleman at Marx’s Funeral: Resolving Evolution’s Oddest Coupling
      (pp. 113-129)

      What could possibly be deemed incongruous on a shelf of Victorian bric-a-brac, the ultimate anglophonic symbol for miscellany? What, to illustrate the same principle on a larger scale, could possibly seem out of place in London’s Highgate Cemetery—the world’s most fantastic funerary park of overgrown vegetation and overblown statuary, described as a “Victorian Valhalla … a maze of rising terraces, winding paths, tombs and catacombs … a monument to the Victorian age and to the Victorian attitude to death … containing some of the most celebrated—and often most eccentric—funerary architecture to be found anywhere” (from Highgate Cemetery...

    • 7 The Pre-Adamite in a Nutshell
      (pp. 130-146)

      Winston Churchill famously described the Soviet Union as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” This essay, impoverished by contrast, features only two levels of puzzlement—the tale of an anonymous author defending an odd theory that only becomes, in Alice’s immortal words, curiouser and curiouser as one reads. However, in a fractal universe, a single mote can mirror the cosmos, giving literal meaning to Blake’s famous image of the “world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower.” Forgotten documents that now seem ridiculous can offer us maximal instruction in human foibles and...

    • 8 Freud’s Evolutionary Fantasy
      (pp. 147-158)

      In 1897, the public schools of Detroit carried out an extensive experiment with a new and supposedly ideal curriculum. In the first grade, children would read The Song of Hiawatha because, at this age, they recapitulated the “nomadic” and “savage” stages of their evolutionary past and would therefore appreciate such a like-minded hero. During the same years, Rudyard Kipling wrote poetry’s greatest paean to imperialism, “The White Man’s Burden.” Kipling admonished his countrymen to shoulder the arduous responsibility of serving these “new-caught, sullen people, half-devil and half-child.” Teddy Roosevelt, who knew the value of a good line, wrote to Henry...

  7. IV. Essays in the Paleontology of Ideas

    • 9 The Jew and the Jewstone
      (pp. 161-174)

      The human mind may love to contemplate exemplary universes of abstract grandeur and idealized perfection, but we can extract equal pleasure from a tiny embodiment of some great thought, or some defining event of a lifetime, in a humble but concrete object that we can hold in our hands and rotate before our eyes. We cherish such explicit reminders—keepsakes, souvenirs, or mementos in our descriptions—for their salience as markers of distinctive moments in our unique trajectory through the general adventure of human life.

      For this reason, I have never been able to understand the outright purchase, from catalogs...

    • 10 When Fossils Were Young
      (pp. 175-191)

      In his first inaugural address, in 1861, Abraham Lincoln expressed some strong sentiments that later guardians of stable governments would hesitate to recall. “This country, with its institutions,” he stated, “belongs to the people who inhabit it…. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.” Compared with these grand (and just) precepts, the tiny little reforms that make life just a tad better may pale into risible insignificance, but I would not disparage their cumulative power to alleviate the weariness of...

    • 11 Syphilis and the Shepherd of Atlantis
      (pp. 192-208)

      We usually manage to confine our appetite for mutual recrimination to merely petty or mildly amusing taunts. Among English speakers, unannounced departures (especially with bills left unpaid), or military absences without permission, go by the epithet of “taking French leave.” But a Frenchman calls the same, presumably universal, human tendency s’en filer à l’Anglaise, or “taking English leave.” I learned, during an undergraduate year in England, that the condoms I had bought (for no realized purpose, alas) were “French letters” to my fellow students. In France that summer, my fellow students of another nation called the same item a chapeau...

  8. V. Casting the Die:: Six Evolutionary Epitomes


      • 12 Darwin and the Munchkins of Kansas
        (pp. 213-215)

        In 1999 the Kansas Board of Education voted 6 to 4 to remove evolution, and the big bang theory as well, from the state’s science curriculum. In so doing, the board transported its jurisdiction to a never-never land where a Dorothy of a new millennium might exclaim, “They still call it Kansas, but I don’t think we’re in the real world anymore.” The new standards do not forbid the teaching of evolution, but the subject will no longer be included in statewide tests for evaluating students—a virtual guarantee, given the realities of education, that this central concept of biology...

      • 13 Darwin’s More Stately Mansion
        (pp. 216-218)

        A famous Victorian story reports the reaction of an aristocratic lady to the primary heresy of her time: “Let us hope that what Mr. Darwin says is not true; but, if it is true, let us hope that it will not become generally known.” Teachers continue to relate this tale as both a hilarious putdown of class delusions (as if the upper crust could protect public morality by permanently sequestering a basic fact of nature) and an absurdist homily about the predictable fate of ignorance versus enlightenment. And yet I think we should rehabilitate this lady as an acute social...

      • 14 A Darwin for All Reasons
        (pp. 219-222)

        As a paleontologist by trade and (dare I say it?) a card-carrying liberal in politics, I have been amused, but also a bit chagrined, by the current fad in conservative intellectual circles for invoking the primary icon of my professional world—Charles Darwin—as either a scourge or an ally in support of cherished doctrines.

        Since Darwin cannot logically fulfill both roles at the same time, and since the fact of evolution in general (and the theory of natural selection in particular) cannot legitimately buttress any particular moral or social philosophy in any case, I’m confident that this greatest of...


      • 15 When Less Is Truly More
        (pp. 225-228)

        On Monday, February 12, 2001, two groups of researchers released the formal report of data for the human genome. They timed their announcement well—and purposely—for February 12 is the birthday of Charles Darwin, who jump-started our biological understanding of life’s nature and evolution when he published the Origin of Species in 1859. For only the second time in thirty-five years of teaching, I dropped my intended schedule—to discuss the importance of this work with my undergraduate course on the history of life. (The only other case, in a distant age of the late sixties, fell a half-hour...

      • 16 Darwin’s Cultural Degree
        (pp. 229-232)

        We can embrace poetical reminders of our connection to the natural world, whether expressed as romantic effusions about oneness, or in the classical meter of Alexander Pope’s heroic couplet:

        All are but parts of one stupendous whole

        Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.

        Yet, when we look into the eyes of an ape, our perception of undeniable affinity evokes an eerie fascination that we usually express as laughter or as fear. Our discomfort then increases when we confront the loss of former confidence in our separate and exalted creation “a little lower than the angels … crowned …...

      • 17 The Without and Within of Smart Mice
        (pp. 233-236)

        Every age must develop its own version of the unobtainable and chimerical quick fix: the right abracadabra to select the winning lottery number, the proper prayer to initiate the blessed millennium, the correct formula to construct the philosopher’s stone. In a technological age, we seek the transforming gene to elicit immediate salvation from within.

        An excellent and provocative study of Joe Tsien and his colleagues will, one may safely predict, be widely misread in the false light of this age-old hope—combined with some equally age-old fallacies of human reasoning.

        These scientists bred strains of mice with extra copies of...

  9. VI. The Meaning and Drawing of Evolution


      • 18 What Does the Dreaded “E” Word Mean Anyway?
        (pp. 241-256)

        Evolution posed no terrors in the liberal constituency of New York City when I studied biology at Jamaica High School in 1956. But our textbooks didn’t utter the word either—a legacy of the statutes that had brought William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow to legal blows at Tennessee’s trial of John Scopes in 1925. The subject remained doubly hidden within my textbook—covered only in chapter 63 of sixty-six, and described in euphemism as “the hypothesis of racial development.”

        The anti-evolution laws of the Scopes era, passed during the early 1920s in several Southern states, remained on the books...

      • 19 The First Day of the Rest of Our Life
        (pp. 257-270)

        The comparison of the human body and the universe—the microcosm with the macrocosm—has served as a standard device for explicating both the factuality and the meaning of nature throughout most of Western history. When Leonardo da Vinci, for example, likened our bodily heat, breath, blood, and bones to the lavas of volcanic eruptions, the effusions of interior air in earthquakes, the emergence of streams from underground springs, and the rocks that build the earth’s framework—and then interpreted these sequences as particular expressions of the four Greek elements of fire, air, water, and earth—he did not view...

      • 20 The Narthex of San Marco and the Pangenetic Paradigm
        (pp. 271-284)

        I do realize that the biggest of all bosses labored with maximal sweat and diligence during those first six days. So “perhaps it would be wise not to carp or criticize,” as Gilbert and Sullivan’s Chief of Police once remarked in a different context (in The Pirates of Penzance). Still, I must confess that I’ve always been puzzled by the relative paltriness of accomplishment on the second day, for the import of this episode seems almost derisory compared with the scope of all others—light created on the first day (in the grandest of all opening acts, and especially necessary...


      • 21 Linnaeus’s Luck?
        (pp. 287-304)

        Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778), the founder of modern taxonomy and the focus of this essay, frequently cited an ancient motto to epitomize his view of life: natura non facit saltum (nature does not make leaps). Such unbroken continuity may reign in the material world, but our human passion for order and clear distinction leads us to designate certain moments or events as “official” beginnings for something discrete and new. Thus the signatures on a document define the birth of a nation on July 4, 1776, and the easily remembered eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (November...

      • 22 Abscheulich! (Atrocious)
        (pp. 305-320)

        Revolutions cannot be kind to prominent and unre-constructed survivors of a superseded age. But the insight and dignity of vanquished warriors, after enough time has elapsed to quell the immediate passions of revolt, often inspire a reversal of fortune in the judgment of posterity. (Even the most unabashed northerner seems to prefer Robert E. Lee to George McClellan these days.)

        This essay details a poignant little drama in the lives of three great central European scientists caught in the intellectual storm of Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859. This tale, dormant for a century, has just achieved a vigorous...

      • 23 Tales of a Feathered Tail
        (pp. 321-332)

        One fine day, or so the legend proclaims, Joseph Stalin received a telegram from his exiled archrival, Leon Trotsky. Overjoyed by the apparent content, Stalin rounded up the citizenry of Moscow for an impromptu rally in Red Square. He then addressed the crowd below: “I have received the following message of contrition from Comrade Trotsky, who has obviously been using his Mexican retreat for beneficial reflection: ‘Comrade Stalin: You are right! I was wrong! You are the leader of the Russian people!’”

        But as waves of involuntary applause rolled through the square, a Jewish tailor in the front row—Trotsky’s...

  10. VII. Natural Worth

    • 24 An Evolutionary Perspective on the Concept of Native Plants
      (pp. 335-346)

      An important, but widely unappreciated, concept in evolutionary biology draws a clear and careful distinction between the historical origin and current utility of organic features. Feathers, for example, could not have originated for flight because five percent of a wing in an evolutionary intermediate between small running dinosaurs and birds could not have served any aerodynamic function (though feathers, derived from reptilian scales, provide important thermodynamic benefits right away). But feathers were later co-opted to keep birds aloft in a most exemplary fashion (see essay 23 for a detailed discussion of this subject). In a similar manner, our large brains...

    • 25 Age-Old Fallacies of Thinking and Stinking
      (pp. 347-355)

      We shudder at the thought of repeating the initial sins of our species. Thus, Hamlet’s uncle bewails his act of fratricide by recalling Cain’s slaying of Abel:

      O! my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;

      It hath the primal eldest curse upon ’t;

      A brother’s murder!

      Such metaphors of unsavory odor seem especially powerful because our sense of smell lies so deep in our evolutionary construction, yet remains (perhaps for this reason) so undervalued and often unmentioned in our culture. A later seventeenth-century English writer recognized this potency and particularly warned his readers against using olfactory metaphors because common...

    • 26 The Geometer of Race
      (pp. 356-366)

      Interesting stories often lie encoded in names that seem either capricious or misconstrued. Why, for example, are political radicals called “left” and their conservative counterparts “right”? In most European legislatures, maximally distinguished members sat at the chairman’s right, following a custom of courtesy as old as our prejudices for favoring the dominant hand of most people. (These biases run deep, extending well beyond can openers and writing desks to language itself, where dextrous comes from the Latin for “right,” and sinister for “left.”) Since these distinguished nobles and moguls tended to espouse conservative views, the right and left wings of...

    • 27 The Great Physiologist of Heidelberg
      (pp. 367-384)

      If you suspend both reason and knowledge, and then gaze upon the ruins of the medieval castle on the hill, lit so softly at night and visible from all points in the city below; if you then recall the lively drinking songs from Sigmund Romberg’s Student Prince, and conjure up an image of dashing young men purposely scarring their faces in frivolous duels—then the usual image of Heidelberg as a primary symbol of European romanticism and carefree charm might pass muster. But when you trace the tales of internecine destruction that created these sets, then the visions become fiction,...

  11. VIII. Triumph and Tragedy on the Exact Centennial of I Have Landed, September 11, 2001

    • Introductory Statement
      (pp. 387-388)

      The four short pieces in this final section, added for obvious and tragic reasons after the completion of this book in its original form, chronicle an odyssey of fact and feeling during the month following an epochal moment that may well be named, in history’s archives, simply by its date rather than its cardinal event—not D-Day, not the day of JFK’s assassination, but simply as “September 11th.” I would not have been able to bypass the subject in any case, but I simply couldn’t leave this transformation of our lives and sensibilities unaddressed in this book, because my focus...

    • 28 The Good People of Halifax
      (pp. 389-392)

      Images of division and enmity marked my first contact, albeit indirect, with Nova Scotia—the common experience of so many American schoolchildren grappling with the unpopular assignment of Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline, centered upon the expulsion of the Acadians in 1755. My first actual encounter with Maritime Canada, as a teenager on a family motor trip in the mid-1950s, sparked nothing but pleasure and fascination, as I figured out the illusion of Moncton’s magnetic hill, marveled at the tidal phenomena of the Bay of Fundy (especially the reversing rapids of Saint John and the tidal bore of Moncton), found peace...

    • 29 Apple Brown Betty
      (pp. 393-395)

      The patterns of human history mix decency and depravity in equal measure. We often assume, therefore, that such a fine balance of results must emerge from societies made of decent and depraved people in equal numbers. But we need to expose and celebrate the fallacy of this conclusion so that, in this moment of crisis, we may reaffirm an essential truth too easily forgotten, and regain some crucial comfort too readily foregone. Good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one. The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil,...

    • 30 The Woolworth Building
      (pp. 396-398)

      The astronomical motto of New York State—excelsior (literally “higher,” or, more figuratively, “ever upward”)—embodies both the dream and the danger of human achievement in its ambiguous message. In the promise of the dream, we strive to exceed our previous best as we reach upward, literally to the stars, and ethically to knowledge and the pursuit of happiness. In the warnings of danger, any narrowly focused and linear goal can drift, especially when our moral compass fails, into the zealotry of “true belief,” and thence to an outright fanaticism that brooks no opposition.

      As a naturalist by profession, and...

    • 31 September 11, ’01
      (pp. 399-402)

      “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born and a time to die: a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1–2).

      I have a large collection of antiquarian books in science, some with beautiful bindings and plates, others dating to the earliest days of printing in the late fifteenth century. But my most precious possession, the pearl beyond all price in my collection, cost five cents when Joseph Arthur Rosenberg, a thirteen-year-old immigrant just off the boat from Hungary,...

  12. Illustration Credits
    (pp. 403-404)
  13. Index
    (pp. 405-418)