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The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (Penguin science) Paperback – 27 Sep 1990

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  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New edition edition (27 Sept. 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140134808
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140134803
  • Product Dimensions: 12.8 x 2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 596,807 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Fatboy on 18 Mar. 2010
Format: Paperback
Anyone who has read any of Gould's collections of essays before and loved them will know exactly what to expect here.

For those of you that haven't. Gould was a palaeontologist, specialising in the area of evolutionary biology. The essays presented within this book were taken from his monthly column "This View of Life" in Natural History magazine, to which Gould contributed for 27 years. He was an amazingly prolific writer that insantaneously captures the interest of his audience from the first word to ages after the final word has been read (and will be sadly missed by many). As an example of his innovative style; in "A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse" he uses the way Disney have gradually drawn Mickey Mouse more and more child-likesince his debut performance in Steamboat Wille to describe neotony (progressive juvenilisatiom as an evolutionary phenomenon).

Other gems within this collection include:
"Piltdown Revisited": The "Piltdown Man" is a famous paleontological hoax concerning the finding of the remains of a previously unknown early human. The hoax find consisted of fragments of a skull and jawbone collected in 1912 from a gravel pit at Piltdown, a village in East Sussex (England). Gould tells the most wonderful "whodunnit?" mystery equal to anything written by Authur Connan Doyle and all the more fscinating for being based on fact.
"Were Dinosaurs Dumb": Gould investigates the common held belief that dinosaurs brain size rendered them slow and clumsy by extrapolating the brain size associated with modern reptiles to the size of dinosaurs.
"Natural Attraction: Bacteria, the Birds and the Bees": A discussion on the use of magnetism by certain bacteria ("magnetotactic" bacteria).
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By P. Webster on 6 Dec. 2012
Format: Paperback
This was the first Stephen Jay Gould book I ever read - thirty years ago - and I immediately became a Gould fan. It is the second in the long series of books collecting together the essays he wrote for the journal "Natural History". Despite being three decades old, most of the essays in this book are still a must for anyone interested in evolutionary theory.

All of Gould's writings are excellent: he never fails to make you think. But I like his earlier writings (such as this book) best, because his writing style then was at its most sharp and concise. Gould's later stuff is still well worth reading, but his later writing style could at times be rather repetitive and self-indulgent.

I now apologise because the following summary of Gould's ideas is taken from my Amazon review of "The Richness of Life", a book which brings together a selection of Gould's writings from all of his publications.

Gould's output falls into four main areas. Firstly, there is his contribution to evolutionary theory: he developed (with Niles Eldredge) the theory of punctuated equilibrium (linked to the concept of species selection); he emphasised that evolutionary history consists of a branching bush, not a ladder of progress; he argued that chance (or rather "contingency") plays a large part in evolutionary history; he contended that not every feature of an organism can be explained by functional adaptationism; and he showed that organs can often be adapted and used for purposes which are different from the ones they first evolved to perform.

Secondly, Gould saw that science is a human activity which is influenced by the social, historical and ideological context in which it takes place. His historical biographies of scientists always show them to be products of their times.
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Mr Gary E Whorwood VINE VOICE on 27 Mar. 2000
Format: Paperback
This is a fascinating collection of evolution-based stories. It is very readable and thoroughly absorbing.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 2 reviews
By Steven H Propp - Published on
Format: Paperback
Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) wrote many other important books, such as Ever Since Darwin, The Flamingo's Smile, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, Bully for Brontosaurus, Eight Little Piggies, Dinosaur in a Haystack, Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, The Lying Stones Of Marrakech, etc. [NOTE: page numbers refer to the original 343-page hardcover edition.]

He wrote in the Prologue to this 1980 book, "while Darwinian theory extends its domain, some of its cherished postulates are slipping... Many evolutionists (myself included) are beginning to challenge this synthesis and to assert the hierarchical view that different levels of evolutionary change often reflect different kinds of causes... Evolutionary trends may ... not [reflect] the slow and steady alteration of a single large population through untold ages... we must reckon with a multiplicity of mechanisms that preclude the explanation of higher level phenomena by the model of gene substitution favored for the lowest level. At the basis of all this ferment lies nature's irreducible complexity. Organisms are not billiard balls, propelled by simple and measurable external forces to predictable new positions on life's pool table. Sufficiently complex systems have greater richness."

He argues against Wallace's "hyper-selectionism" [i.e., that "every part of every creature is fashioned for and only for its immediate use"]: "It is a caricature of Darwin's subtler view, and it both ignores and misunderstands the nature of organic form and function. Natural selection may build an organ 'for' a specific function or group of functions. But this 'purpose' need not fully specify the capacity of that organ. Objects designed for definite purposes can, as a result of their structural complexity, perform many other tasks as well... Our large brains may have originated 'for' some set of necessary skills in gathering food socializing, or whatever; but these skills do not exhaust the limits of what such a complex machine can do." (Pg. 56-57)

Very controversially, he argues in his "Piltdown Revisited" essay: "But who had foisted such a monstrous hoax upon scientists so anxious for such a find that they remained blind to an obvious solution of its anomalies? Of the original trio, Teilhard [de Chardin] was dismissed as a young and unwitting dupe...Suspicion instead had focused on [Charles] Dawson... The third hypothesis... would render Piltdown as a joke that went too far, rather than a malicious forgery... It is often hard to remember a man in his youth after old age imposes a different persona. Teilhard de Chardin ... was widely hailed as a leading prophet of our age. But he was once a fun-loving young student... He may have had access... to mammalian bones... that formed part of the 'imported' fauna at Piltdown. I can easily imagine Dawson and Teilhard, over long hours in field and pub, hatching a plot for different reasons: Dawson to expose the gullibility of pompous professionals; Teilhard to rub English noses once again with the taunt that their nation had no legitimate human fossils, while France reveled in a superabundance... Teilhard left England to become a stretcher bearer during World War I... Dawson... died in 1916. Teilhard could not return before the war's end. By that time, the three leading lights of British anthropology and paleontology... had staked their careers on the reality of Piltdown... Had Teilhard confessed in 1918, his promising career ... would have ended abruptly... Possible. Just possible." (Pg. 113-114) [In a Postscript, he continues to defend this theory: "if Dawson did not 'officially' discover the molar until July, 1915, how could Teilhard have known about it unless he was involved in the hoax." (Pg. 122-123) He also defends the theory in Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes. However, in his final "summary" work, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, he does not mention Piltdown Man, and only refers to Teilhard incidentally as a "theistic evolutionist"; so hopefully he finally gave up on this speculative theory.]

Perhaps surprisingly, he observes, "Contrary to popular myths, Darwin and Lyell were not the heroes of true science, defending objectivity against the theological fantasies of such 'catastrophists' as Cuvier and Buckland. Catastrophists were as committed to science as any gradualist; in fact, they adopted the more 'objective' view that one should believe what one sees and not interpolate missing bits of a gradual record into a literal tale of rapid change." (Pg. 181) He continues, "The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils. Yet Darwin was so wedded to gradualism that he wagered his entire theory on a denial of this literal record... I wish in no way to impugn the potential validity of gradualism... I wish only to point out that it was never 'seen' in the rocks. Paleontologists have paid an exorbitant price for Darwin's argument... yet to preserve our favored account of evolution by natural selection we view our data as so bad that we almost never see the very process we profess to study... The modern theory of evolution does not require gradual change... It is gradualism that we just reject, not Darwinism. The history of most fossil species includes two features particularly inconsistent with gradualism: 1. Stasis. Most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth... 2. Sudden appearance. In any local area, a species... appears all at once and 'fully formed.'" (Pg. 181-182)

He adds, "[Niles] Eldredge and I believe that speciation is responsible for almost all evolutionary change. Moreover, the way in which it occurs virtually guarantees that sudden appearance and stasis shall dominate the fossil record." (Pg. 183-184) "What should the fossil record include if most evolution occurs by speciation in peripheral isolates? Species should be static through their range... a descendent species should appear suddenly by migration from the peripheral region... Eldredge and I refer to this scheme as the model of 'punctuated equilibria.' Lineages change little during most of their history, but events of rapid speciation occasionally punctuate this tranquility. Evolution is the differential survival and deployment of these punctuations." (Pg. 184)

In his famous essay, "Return of the Hopeful Monster," he asks, "can we invent a reasonable sequence of intermediate forms... between ancestors and descendants in major structural transitions? Of what possible use are the imperfect incipient stages of useful structures? What good is half a jaw of half a wing? The concept of preadaptation provides the conventional answer... I regard preadaptation as an important, even in indispensable, concept. But a plausible story is not necessarily true." (Pg. 189) He continues, "In my own, strongly biased opinion, the problem of reconciling evident discontinuity in macroevolution with Darwinism is largely solved by the observation that small changes early in embryology accumulate through growth to yield profound differences among adults. Prolong the high prenatal rate of brain growth into early childhood and a monkey's brain moves toward human size... Indeed, if we do not invoke discontinuous change by small alteration in rates of development, I do not see now must major evolutionary transitions can be accomplished at all... How could we ever convert an adult rhinoceros or a mosquito into something different. Yet transitions between major groups have occurred in the history of life." (Pg. 192-193)

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.
Wonderful..must read for Darwinians 4 Dec. 2004
By Dustin Ducharme - Published on
Format: Paperback
Stephen Jay Gould, one of the leading natural scientists of the 20th centry, writes with humour and a knowledge that invites you into his 'world' of Panda's thumbs, Dodo's brains, and Bacteria's compass. Very funny, very interesting, very well writen. A basic overview of many of Darwin's teachings by someone who knows what he's talking about.
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