The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History
The Evolutionary Synthesis: Perspectives on the Unification of Biology
When I reviewed Stephen Jay Gould’s admirable Ever Since Darwin a few years ago, I expressed the hope that he would not lay his pen aside for too long. I need not have worried, for Gould is a natural writer: he has something to say and the inclination and skill with which to say it. His present collection is a series of essays that would give special pleasure to scientists, but they are sufficiently relaxed to be read with enjoyment by laymen too. A casual reader flipping through his pages may wonder what Mickey Mouse is doing in chapter nine (“A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse”). Mickey is here to illustrate the characteristics thought by Konrad Lorenz to be responsible for the specially endearing characteristics of babyhood: “a relatively large head, predominance of the brain capsule, large and low-lying eyes, bulging cheek region, short and thick extremities, a springy elastic consistency, and clumsy movements.”
Without dissenting from Lorenz I wonder if this is the whole story. Few animals are more endearing than baby giraffes, which meet some but not all of Lorenz’s criteria; helplessness is surely another. I enjoyed this reminder of Mickey in his great days: it is a cultural tragedy that the brilliant early Disney was degraded and debauched by the witless and mindless imitators whose creatures have made television intolerable in the US on Saturday mornings.
Before I read Gould’s chapter fifteen I might have been tempted to dismiss as idiots people who enjoy such programs—but the correct technical term, I learn from Gould, is moron. Gould here adds his weight to those of us who insist that the pejorative and biologically most unsound term “Mongolism” be dropped in favor of “Down’s syndrome” as a designation of this unhappy congenital affliction. Down adopted the term because he regarded the syndrome as evidence of degeneration—of an atavistic return to a remotely ancestral human condition. Mongolian members of WHO objected to this and would have been still more annoyed if they had known that Down had entertained the possibility that the reversion was to a type even lower than that represented by modern Mongolians. Gould explains the whole matter admirably and in a way that everybody can understand. In defense of Down it should however be pointed out that Down worked and thought in the atmosphere of fearful wonderment about the implications for man of what was coming to be learned about heredity, development, and evolution that had been created by the writings of such as Francis Galton, Cesare Lombroso, Max Nordau, and of course Henrik Ibsen.
Gould’s favorite way of going about things is to pick upon some natural oddity and use it as a text for writing on some important biological problem. Thus the death within a few hours of birth of male mites of the genus Adactylidium is the text of the discussion of how the sex ratio comes to be fixed by natural selection. He adds, “Nature’s oddities are more than good stories. They…
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