Saturday, September 06, 2008

Stephen Jay Gould's Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes

I read this as part of the What an Animal Challenge. It is a collection of the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould's essays that he used to publish in Natural History magazine. It is an older collection, originally published in 1983, but still very relevant and interesting. There were essays on the history of evolutionary thought and evolutionary politics, such as the Scopes "Monkey" Trial. Several essays were on exceptions to "traditional" thinking on evolution and "Darwinism". Gould is an interesting mix of scientific and professional ego, love of Darwin, and hatred of "dogma" and a need to "think differently", especially about "Darwinism". Some of his thoughts are so bogged down in his own personal issues that he can't see facts right in front of him, while at other times he is incredible free thinking and poking fun at people who are "stuck in the rut" of traditional thinking. I used to think he was a bit more of an egomaniac, but after seeing him on the Simpsons, I saw his lighter and funnier side. But, as a lover of evolution, I must respect him and admire his erudition. Much of the time, we see the world in very similar ways. In this particular collection of his essays, Gould is, I think, at his best. The essays are thoughtful, interesting, educational, and well worth reading even 25 years after the fact. I had some of my students read an essay from a similar book last year, and many of them found Gould to be a bit tough to swallow. He was an academic and an intellectual and was very fond of big words. But he was a fascinating author full of fascinating ideas, and I will not rest until I've read all of his collections of essays. I've read several other of these collections as well as bits and pieces here and there. This collection is the best I've read to date.

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