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on 13 December 1998
Having read many of Stephen Jay Gould's collections of essays with much satisfaction, I was quite excited to try him in the book-length format of "Full House: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin," expecting it to allow him more room for deeper investigation and fuller development of his "excellent" ideas. Instead, 230 pages allowed Gould, one of science's foremost essayists, to be more exhausting than exhaustive.
His topic is interesting and important: how misconceptions about systems and distorting mental representations of them cause false perceptions of trends. Gould walks the reader through elementary statistical method and makes the abstract real and personal by recounting his own harrowing experience with cancer. He then uses the well kept data of baseball to demonstrate the narrowing of over-all variability in a system being perceived as a directed trend, in this case "downward" as .400 hitting disappears. Gould then combats ideas of "progress" being inherent in natural evolution, explaining that since first life was of the simplest organization ("You can't expect a lion to jump out of the primordial soup"), things could only become MORE complex, not less so. Vast time has therefore delivered more sophisticated organization in some organisms as a result of natural selection, but this does not replace or repudiate life's bacterial beginnings, which Gould takes great joy in showing still "rule" our planet. Instead, the most complex of organisms, a group to which we of course belong but which would have and could have existed without us, only represent expanded statistical variability of the entire system. Finally Gould contrasts the inefficient and random nature of biological evolution with the swift and purposeful development of culture and argues for the elimination of the misleading term "cultural evolution." The most overarching theme is that while representations of systems with a single number or attribute can sometimes be useful, we must recognize that these constructs are of our creation and can be very distorting because they are less than the whole, the "Full House" of the title.
Gould could have accomplished all of this in half as many pages as he presents to us in "Full House." The "book" suffers from two types of redundancy. The most annoying and inexplicable kind is simple repetitiveness, phrases and entire sentences used many times throughout, reminiscent of Homeric epic, and not typical of Gould. The other tautology found here is necessary for scientific journal writing, but tedious to the general reader. While I respect Gould's pride in not "dumbing-down" his work for the public and making them dig in and read hard, unless one is a sabermetrician (studying sport statistics) I am afraid a lot of this stuff is stupefying.
When addressing the "German virus" that created the greats of classical music and wondering where the modern equivalents are, Gould asserts that popular demand of novel form has been unfair to latter-day composers of music because all forms have been exhausted. He then dismisses rock music. Perhaps he has tongue in cheek, but I suspect elitism and codgerism. Gould must recognize that society and technology make the music, and jazz, rock, and rap are certainly innovative, if not inherently progressive.
Gould states in the introduction that "Full House" is a companion to "Wonderful Life," another book-length work of his. While I will next read this for his always fascinating ideas, I look forward to returning to the short essay format which made me a Stephen Jay Gould fan.
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on 17 August 2004
Stepehen Jay Gould argues that the conventional view of the progression of life and the drive to ever more elegant complexity, leading to homo sapiens, is indeed a fallacy. He directs the reader to a more convincing proposal, namely that life's history represents a full spread of variation (Full House). Gould is as eloquent as ever and introduces basic statistical concepts to strengthen his argument. This short book provides an unbiased look at life on earth and reminds us that while we may be the brainiest species on earth, it is indeed bacteria that builds the main trunk of the tree of life and has always dominated the history of life by criteria of diversity, flexibility, range of habitats, modes of life, and sheer weight of numbers. In the words of Gould " do not be tempted to equate transient domination with either intrinsic superiority or prospects for extended survival". Insightful and forthright. Typical Gould.
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on 3 December 1998
I find it hard to believe I even feel compelled to write this, given the enthusiasm with which I've read many of Gould's earlier collections. In short, this book is a horribly belabored discussion about how changes in the level of variation of phenomena are sometimes incorrectly confused as evidence of trends. It's a valid observation although hardly insightful. Gould's three examples would have nicely filled out a 5 page monograph, yet they are somehow inflated here into a 200+ page book.
And with all this extra text, somehow obvious mistakes still creep in. My favorite: Gould's prime example involves the 'extinction' of .400-level hitting in major-league baseball, which he triumphantly relates to a narrowing of variation, rather than a relative trend of hitting skills relative to the general level of play that the professional game has evolved. The idea is sound, but a narrowing of variation here is ultimately a decrease (however pronounced) of probability of hitting .400, not an extinction of all hope. Extinction is a decline to a probability of ZERO, which we may want to practically assume in this case ... yet Gould's arguments as stated would apply, one would think, to Home Runs hit during a season as well, and in this year of McGwire and Sosa, clearly a small probability and a zero probability are two very different things.
The style of the book attempts academic sobriety and might succeed were it not that almost every in-line bibliographic reference uncannily refers to other stuff written by Stephen J. Gould, and the author displays a rampant need to resort to personal surmise to carry a point. Makes you feel like he should have done more research more widely for your $12.
If you have never sifted through data but suspect you may have to for some personal or professional reason, the book is worth skimming through before you get started. Otherwise, as we say for Boston baseball, wait until next year (or whenever) for a better effort from Gould.
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on 2 November 1998
I'm a Gould fan. He can do what I think a great popularizer of science should be able to do: Write in a manner that makes topics I would have assumed that I have no interest in actually captivate my attention. This book is no exception, though the expressions of healthy self-esteem noted in other reviews may be off-putting to some.
I have one quibble: The forays into cultural history that closes the book suffer from the kind of myopia Gould chastises many natural historians for commiting. I love european "classical" music, too. (I just witnessed an excellent performance of Alexander Nevsky last night.) But to use this tiny branch of a huge bush to draw many conclusions about cultural history is like using human beings to draw conclusions about natural history, Gould's arguments to the contrary not-withstanding.
But that is a minor point.
What I would really love to see: Gould tackle the implications of Kuhn's _The Structure of Scientific Revolutions_ in relation to his work in Natural History.
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on 23 July 1999
Evolution and Genesis, are each other's most common adversaries with regards to the origi of mankind, however, there is another much more profound and believable explanation of our origins on this planet. Stephen Jay Gould, is Professor of zoology adn geology at Harvard University and the curator for invertebrate paleontology in the university's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Professor Gould compares and explains the decline of major league baseball batting averages to man's inevitable domination of the planet, as the, "spread of excellence". He continually contradicts misperceptions of millions in the belief of Darwin's, "Evolutions of the Species", and the Bible's theory of complexity are not characteristic of the evolution of life on Earth. As in his previous 15 books he vividly explains and supports his teachings and beliefs with biological and paleontological evidence. The Spread of Excellence, is the spreading out of expansion of complex organisms on this planet over a period of several billions of years. In a comparison of this spread of excellence to baseball, the significance of a decline in baseball hitting averages, since Ted William's 1940's 406 average, does not indicate a drop in performance or talent but represents an increase in talented players across the board. Dr. Gould is both a scientist and a writer extraordinaire. In a comparison of Full House tothe previously mentioned radical theories of the origin of mankind, Full House is but a natural extension or conclusion in reasoning and logical thinking in a complex world.
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on 30 March 1998
Interesting and thought provoking, but I got sick of the continual baseball references and the hints at how clever he himself is - it seems the only friend he admires that isn't overwhelmed by his own genius is his mate Ed who got a nobel prize. But a good read anyhow!
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on 18 February 1998
I found the book to be entertaining. The observation that only local adaptations drive the organisms is important. In particular it is troublesome that there doesn't seem to be trend towards increasing complexity in biological systems. Like other readers I did find the book a bit too long and belabored.
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on 20 March 1999
There may be redundancy in this book, as noted by others, but that hardly matters when you consider what Mr. Gould is suggesting. I think his thesis is as revolutionary as that of Copernicus. Just as Copernicus and Galileo debunked our species' self-important belief that Earth was the center of the universe, Mr. Gould argues that we have no basis for thinking that we are the peak of evolution. We're just a chance variant from the bacterial norm. Not an apex, simply a deviation. If he is correct, mankind must once again reevaluate its place in the universe. To me, this is an icon-shattering work of widespread importance, explained using the fascinating mystery of the extinct .400 hitter.
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on 31 May 2000
Thanks to Dr Gould, his book is a beautiful non-conventional real story about our presence on earth. Now every thinks seems to me very understandable. Our importance for ourselves built this false story from the scientific good work of Darwin's evolution. We are the aliens in a bacteria world, perhaps the same in the entire universe. For me, baseball needs on more chapters since this game is unknown in my country. But I love also in this difficult story the way it starts. Every American people can learn why they are self-conscious starting this tale with this common game. Sorry for my English language. Michel
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on 21 April 1999
Dr. Gould, an obvious successor to Dr. Sagan's throne, seems to deny and retreat from his message. The ".400 hitter" analogy to diversity is understandable - but weak. Who cares about baseball in contrast to evolution and armegeddon? I saw his slide presentation of "FULL HOUSE" @ Augustana College last year, and it was ALL OVER THE PLACE - just like the book. Skipping from here-to-there. Although this essay is full of challenging observations, the lay-out dramatizes his own theory: APPARENT LACK OF ORGANIZATION. Deliberate? I think not.
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