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Dinosaur in a Haystack [Paperback]

Stephen Jay Gould
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

7 Mar 1996
Gould's writing remains the modern standard by which popular science writing is judged. Ever since the late 1970s, his monthly essay in NATURAL HISTORY and his full-length books ahve bridged the yawning gap between science and the wider culture. He has a gift for colloquial and vivid explanation, an unquenchable passion for Darwinian science, and a deep democratic commitment which resists any reduction to biological urges. The characteristic themes of Gould's essays are brilliantly displayed in this, his seventh generous collection of essays. They range from his beloved New York City to the wider realms of discredited scientific theory, in which Gould always manages to find a nugget of insight which we ignore at our peril. He discusses Jurassic Park, the reconstruction of dinosaurs and the tragic myth of Frankenstein. He is as fascinated by tongue-worms and water beans as he is by dinosaurs and giant fungi. His literary references extend from the Old Testament through Edgar Allan Poe to Stephen King. He writes about the glory of museums, the older the better. And as always, there are more strictly scientific essays that discuss problems of evolutionary theory.


Product details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd; First Edition edition (7 Mar 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0224044729
  • ISBN-13: 978-0224044721
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 16.2 x 4.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 645,363 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) was the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Geology at Harvard University and the curator for invertebrate palaeontology in the University's Museum of Comparative Zoology. He is the author of over twenty books, and received the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the MacArthur Fellowship. He died in May 2002.

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5.0 out of 5 stars Punctuated evolution 29 Jan 2006
By bernie TOP 1000 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback
I had read some of the earlier works and was planning to read disassociated unique ideas. "Oranges" by John A. McPhee is just that way (a little history, a little myth, and maybe some economics.) or a continuing string of thought like "The Ascent of Man" by Jacob Bronowski.
What I found was something surprisingly unique. I never realized how coherent reflections could be. Like the columnist, Dave Berry, Stephen Jay Gould would start out with the most innocent of statements and parlay that into an earth shattering reflection. And just as you think he is going way out in left field, he ties it all together. And each chapter is summed up and is tied to one whole reflection on natural history.
You will never look at snails with the same twist again.
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars GOULD'S SEVENTH BOOK OF ESSAYS FROM "NATURAL HISTORY MAGAZINE" 14 May 2014
By Steven H. Propp - Published on Amazon.com
Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) wrote many other important books, such as Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Ever Since Darwin, The Panda's Thumb, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes, The Flamingo's Smile, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, Bully for Brontosaurus, Eight Little Piggies, Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, The Lying Stones Of Marrakech, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, etc. [NOTE: page numbers refer to the 480-page hardcover edition.]

He wrote in the introduction section of this 1995 book, "I have been writing the monthly essays that construct these books since January 1974. This volume... includes the piece that I wrote to mark the completion of twenty years, with never a month missed.... As I have written with active passion, I have also watched with odd detachment---as my own essays have grown, shifted outward, and expanded focus through the seven volumes, across my own transition from rebellious youth to iconoclastic middle age... I also remain true to my centering upon evolution... I love doing this monthly work, but all good things must end---and the imminent millennium provides a natural termination .... I will therefore try to write every month until January 2001... and this series should therefore run for two more volumes."

He points out, "We have all heard the story of Napoleon's meeting with the great astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace... Laplace, or so the story goes, gave Napoleon a copy of his multivolume ... 'Celestial Mechanics.' Napoleon perused the volumes and asked Laplace how he could write so much about the workings of the heavens without once mentioning God, the author the universe. Laplace replied: 'Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.' The actual quip, well attested in a surviving letter, is mildly clever, but pretty insipid compared with the legend, and made by the general rather than the scientist... Laplace did present the very weighty first two volumes of his work... Napoleon hefted the books and promised to read them 'in the first six months I have free.' He then invited Laplace to dinner the next day, 'if you have nothing better to do.'" (Pg. 25)

He observes, "Our conventional divisions of Western history are mired in these twinned errors of false categorization and pejorative designation... popular impression still supports a division into classical times ... followed by the pall of the Dark Ages, some improvement in the Middle Ages, and an éclat of culture's rediscovery in the Renaissance. But consider the origin of the two pejorative terms in this sequence... Petrarch devised the term 'Dark Ages' in about 1340 to designate a period between classical times and his own form of modernism." (Pg. 40) He continues, "I write this essay to point out that the most prominent of all scientific stories in this mode---the supposed Dark and Medieval consensus for a flat earth---is entirely mythological... Classical scholars, of course, had no doubt of the earth's sphericity… The flat-earth myth argues that this knowledge was then lost when ecclesiastical darkness settled over Europe... The inspirational, schoolchild version of the myth centers upon Columbus, who supposedly overcame the calumny of assembled clerics... to win a chance from Ferdinand and Isabella... Dramatic, to be sure, but entirely fictitious. There was never a period of 'flat earth darkness' among scholars... all major medieval scholars accepted the earth's roundness as an established fact... both clerical and lay advisers... did pose some sharp intellectual objections to Columbus, but all assumed the earth's roundness... they argued that Columbus could not reach the indies in his own allotted time, because the earth's circumference was too great. Moreover, his critics were entirely right... he did not and could not reach Asia, and Native Americans are still called Indians as a legacy of his error… Purveyors of the flat-earth myth could never deny this plain testimony of Bede, Bacon, Aquinas, and others---so they argued that these men acted as rare beacons of brave light in pervasive darkness... To call Aquinas a courageous revolutionary because he promoted a spherical earth would be akin to labeling ... twentieth-century evolutionists as radical reformers because a peripheral creationist named Duane Gish wrote a pitiful little book during the same years called Evolution the Fossils Say NO!." (Pg. 40-43)

He explains, "Punctuated equilibrium is a theory about the origin and history of species---that is, the stability of individual species counts as the 'nothing' that our theory promoted to the interest and attention of researchers. A different kind of 'nothing' permeates... our consideration of ... the history of phyletic bushes, or groups of species sharing a common ancestry: the evolution of horses, of dinosaurs, of humans, for example... Trends surely exist in abundance, and they do form the stuff of conventional good stories. Brain size does increase in the human bush; and toes do get fewer, and bodies bigger, as we move up the bush or horses. But the vast majority of bushes display no persistent trends through time. All paleontologists know this, but few would ever think of actively studying a bush with no directional growth." (Pg. 128-129) Later, he adds, "I do think that punctuational change writes nature's primary signature---and I am convinced that our difficulty in conceptualizing this style of alteration arises from social and psychological bias rather than from any shyness of nature in printing its John Hancock." (Pg. 136)

He rejects "an assumption that evolution, if not disrupted somehow, follows a path that will sensibly continue into an indefinite future. But no such road exists. The course of evolution is only the summation of fortuitous contingencies, not a pathway with predictable directions. What is the supposed route that evolution had followed for 150 million years before the disruption at the end of the Cretaceous period?... we could not have predicted the outcome at the outset... Evolution has no pathway that goes forward in sameness if not disrupted by externalities." (Pg. 332)

He points out, "Three major groups of mammals have returned to the ways of distant ancestors in their seafaring modes of life... I confess that I have never quite grasped the creationists' point about inconceivability of transition---for a good structural (though admittedly not a phylogenetic) series of intermediate anatomies may be extracted from these groups. Otters have remarkable aquatic abilities, but retain fully functional limbs for land. Sea lions are clearly adapted for water, but can still flop about on land with sufficient dexterity to negotiate ice floes, breeding grounds, and circus rings." (Pg. 362) He continues, "But I admit... that the transition to manatees and whales represents no trivial extension... The loss of back legs, and the development of flukes, fins, and flippers by whales, therefore stands as a classic case of a supposed cardinal problem in evolutionary theory---the failure to find intermediary fossils for major anatomical transitions, or even to imagine how such a bridging form might look or work... Modern creationists continue to use this example and stress the absence of intermediary forms in this ... transition from land to sea." (Pg. 362-363)

He adds, "I am absolutely delighted to report that our usually recalcitrant fossil record has come through in exemplary fashion. During the past fifteen years, new discoveries... have added greatly to our paleontological knowledge of the earliest history of whales. The embarrassment of past absence has been replaced by a bounty of new evidence---and by the sweetest series of transitional fossils an evolutionist could ever hope to find.... Moreover, to add blessed insult to the creationists' injury, these discoveries have arrived in a gradual and sequential fashion... from a tentative hint fifteen years ago to a remarkable smoking gun early in 1994." (Pg. 363) He concludes, "This sequential discovery of picture-perfect intermediacy in the evolution of whales stands as a triumph in the history of paleontology. I cannot imagine a better tale for popular presentation of science, or a more satisfying, and intellectually based, political victory over lingering creationist opposition." (Pg. 369-370)

Besides being a highly creative evolutionary theorist, Gould was also a brilliant writer and an engaged "public intellectual." His presence is sorely missed on the scientific and literary scene.
5.0 out of 5 stars Punctuated evolution 2 Jun 2013
By bernie - Published on Amazon.com
I had read some of the earlier works and was planning to read disassociated unique ideas. "Oranges" by John A. McPhee is just that way (a little history, a little myth, and maybe some economics.) or a continuing string of thought like "The Ascent of Man" by Jacob Bronowski.

What I found was something surprisingly unique. I never realized how coherent reflections could be. Like the columnist, Dave Berry, Stephen Jay Gould would start out with the most innocent of statements and parlay that into an earth shattering reflection. And just as you think he is going way out in left field, he ties it all together. And each chapter is summed up and is tied to one whole reflection on natural history.
You will never look at snails with the same twist again.
5.0 out of 5 stars Punctuated evolution 2 Dec 2006
By bernie - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I had read some of the earlier works and was planning to read disassociated unique ideas. "Oranges" by John A. McPhee is just that way (a little history, a little myth, and maybe some economics.) or a continuing string of thought like "The Ascent of Man" by Jacob Bronowski.

What I found was something surprisingly unique. I never realized how coherent reflections could be. Like the columnist, Dave Berry, Stephen Jay Gould would start out with the most innocent of statements and parlay that into an earth shattering reflection. And just as you think he is going way out in left field, he ties it all together. And each chapter is summed up and is tied to one whole reflection on natural history.
You will never look at snails with the same twist again.
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