My grandfather was a regular reader of Natural History magazine during its heyday. I recall the magazine sitting around the table beside his chair. I would occasionally skim through it. I must have come across Stephen Jay Gould’s column, “This View of Life” at some point, but I can’t remember when. Besides, at time, I his columns were beyond my abilities. Even now, those columns push me to my limits.
I say this because this year, I have finally gotten around to reading Gould’s books of essays that collect most of the 300 columns he wrote for Natural History. Unlike my usual practice, I’m not going through the collections in order of appearance, but instead, somewhat haphazardly. In order of my reading this year, I’ve made my way through the following volumes:
- Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History
- The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections on Natural History
- Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History
- Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History
- The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History
- Hen’s Teeth and Horses Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History
- Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History
- Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History
During this year, I also managed to read Gould’s A Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History and The Mismeasure of Man.
If my research is correct, there are two more books of Natural History essays that I have yet to read: The Lying Stones of Marrakech and I Have Landed. I’m doubtful I’ll get through these two remaining books before the year is out because I have quite a few books in line ahead of them. But you never know.
I came to essays primarily through Isaac Asimov’s science essay column in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and I have written how at the time those essays taught me almost everything I know about science. Gould’s essays are much more challenging reads than Asimov’s essays were, but in some ways, the essays are more rewarding, and have introduced me to and instructed me in areas and methods of science with which I’d had little familiarity.
Over the years I’ve developed a fondness for the science essay that places it in my personal pantheon of favorites as high–if not slightly higher–in ranking as the personal essay. One of the strengths of both Asimov’s and Gould’s essays is that they are personal in some regard. I imagine writing a future post that focuses on the history and value of the science essays, especially long-term essay columnists like Asimov and Gould and Martin Gardner, as well as their predecessors like Willie Ley and R.S. Richardson. In such an essay, I might wonder about the disappearance of regular science essays columns and explore that path in the same way Gould explores evolutionary dead-ends.
But here I wanted to talk about Gould’s essays and the impact they’ve had on me already. When I started reading them, back in May, I went in with the notion that they would be similar to Asimov’s given their popularity. In actual fact, the essays are nothing alike. In his wonderful editorial, “The Mosaic and the Plate Glass” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Oct. 1980), the Good Doctor expounds on his theory of writing. Mosaic writing is complex, layered, multifaceted writing; plate glass is clear and shows directly through to the point. He couldn’t have provided a better analogy for comparing Gould’s writing to his own, for when I began reading Ever Since Darwin, I recognized almost at once that this was mosaic writing to Asimov’s plate glass.
As I do with most books these day, I began with the audiobook edition of Ever Since Darwin, but I found the subject matter and the complexity of the writing to be enough of a challenge that I knew the audiobook editions alone wouldn’t be good enough. I needed the physical books to help follow along with Gould’s arguments. This is not so much a criticism of Gould’s writing as it my ability to understand the subject matter. Indeed, I found that I enjoyed Gould’s style of science writing more than I did Asimov’s. Asimov was a great explainer. He didn’t write down to the reader, but he often simplified concepts–a good thing for the lay reader.
Gould on the other hands wrote those essays for other professionals and expected that readers of the column would rise to the challenge. These essays are a challenge for me, but I enjoy that challenge, I enjoy puzzling my way through Gould’s arguments to make sure that I understand them. I come away from each one a better-equipped thinker.
I ordered copies of the Gould collections I didn’t already have in hardcopy. That is to say, all of them except Dinosaur in a Haystack, which I picked up in college when it first came out, and which has been sitting on my shelf unread ever since–until this year. I found most of them easily enough, but a few were out of print and I had to locate them from secondhand bookshops online. I was mildly annoyed by this, until fortune stepped in, as it so often has, in my book-buying activity. One place had used copies of The Lying Stones of Marrakech and Leonardo’s Mountain Clams and the Diet of Worms and I ordered both. When they arrived I put them in their proper places on the shelf until I was ready to read them. As I mentioned, I haven’t yet read The Lying Stones of Marrakech, but one day, when I was pulling Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams… off the shelf, I noticed a sticker on The Lying Stones of Marrakech that read “SIGNED.” I flipped open the book and saw this:
The Lying Stones of Marrakech is the penultimate book in the series of essays and was published on April 11, 2000. Gould died in May 2002, which means the book must have been signed by Gould sometime in that 2-year span. It is a joy to have a signed Gould book in my collection.
Gould’s essays have had a notable effect on me. For thing, I’ve learned more about natural history than I ever knew before. The books have opened my eyes to the natural world around me. The range of subjects covered by the books is vast, although nearly always related to some aspect of evolution. They seems to cover everything, from how camouflage evolved in the natural world, to why no one will likely ever hit .400 in the major leagues again.
Recently, for instance, I was out a morning walk. We have a lot of deer in the park woods in our area and seeing them munching along the bike path is a common site in the mornings and evenings. On this particular fall morning, the foliage was riotous, the bike path was covered in leaves, as was the floor of the woods that surrounded me on both sides as I walked.
I would not have noticed the young deer to my left had it not raised its head. I caught the motion from the corner of my eye and when I looked there was the young deer standing among a background of similarly colored shrubs and leaves. Experience told me that if I saw one deer, there were likely others around, so I stopped and stood still and peered into the woods. At first, all I saw was a tangle of limbs and leaves that was almost too much to take in. But then as I watched, several deer emerged from that tangle in way that I can only describe as similar to the way the image in those stereograms from the 1980s emerged once you learned how to focus past them. One moment, I was looking at empty woods, the next it seemed full of deer.
If Asimov’s essays formed a foundation on the scientific method and way that science works (his essays were often steeped in the history of science), then Gould’s by comparison have been a graduate courses in the same subjects. Gould’s essays teach not only scientific method and logical thinking, but they challenge with edge cases, give examples of long-accepted arguments that are filled with fallacies, and breakdown the complexities of real science into its component parts. The history he delves into is often the history of science as a self-correcting process.
Like many writers and scientists, Gould’s theories are sometimes seen as controversial. His theory of punctuated equilibrium raised eyebrows, and as I have been working my way through Gould’s essays, I’ve also been sure to read his critics–something his essays helped reinforce. I finally got around to reading Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene. And I recently read Daniel C. Dennett’s memoir I’ve Been Thinking and his book Consciousness, Explained both of which have some criticism of Gould and his theories. I take these criticisms seriously, and I don’t yet understand all of theories well enough to make a good judgement as to where I fall. What I can say is that Gould’s essays are among the most intellectually challenging I have come across, and what a joy the experience of reading them has been.
Indeed, I may have to read them again to full grasp the underlying theories Gould writes about. But I look forward to this task with enthusiasm. I am working my way toward reading another Gould book that has been sitting on my shelf unread for 21 years now: his magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. At 1,400 pages, it is a massive tome, and not without controversy and criticism, with some critics calling the book unreadable. I take this statement with a grain of salt. Gould’s essays are difficult but there is a beauty in that challenge, and I can see how any writing that isn’t spoon-fed to a reader can be characterized as “unreadable.” Gould often writes about how he goes to original sources as much as possible for many reasons, a good lesson in critical thinking, and one that I want to embrace by reading and judging The Structure of Evolutionary Theory on my own.
But that may be a project for 2024 and beyond.
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