Up Against the Wall

Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History

by Stephen Jay Gould
Harmony Books, 480 pp., $25.00

FULL HOUSE: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin

by Stephen Jay Gould
Harmony Books, 244 pp., $25.00

Stephen Jay Gould on a bad day can be the Lincoln Continental of science writing—ponderous, well upholstered, and designed to travel in a straight line. Comfortable, certainly; assured—no one can doubt that—and if you turn on the radio you are certain to get grand opera; but, somehow, well, just too Executive Style, too Harvard Yard, to sell anywhere except in America.

His latest pair of books, though, shows evidence of a dramatic shift in design. Dinosaur in a Haystack, published last winter and the seventh in his series of miscellaneous pieces collected from Natural History magazine, sits firmly among the whitewall tire school of essayists. The new volume, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, is a far more radical work. In it, Stephen Jay Gould uses a lifetime obsession with baseball, a close call with cancer, and an enormous knowledge of the history of life to build a case that links sport, disease, statistics, and evolution into a seam-less narrative and—although as a fellow science writer I say it through somewhat clenched teeth—he does so brilliantly.

First, however, those haystack-dwelling dinosaurs. It is easy to be needled by this book, which treads a fine line between polymathy and self-parody. suppressing ignoble thoughts of card indices and the Internet, we gazing rustics cannot but be astonished by Gould’s continuing avalanche of words. How, indeed, can one head carry all he knows? As gould points out in the preface, he is not a modest man. He ascribes his success as a feuilletonist to “one great gift from nature’s preeminent goddess, Fortuna—a happy conjunction of my own hypertrophy with maximal utility in a central professional activity…. I can always find legitimate and unforced connections among the disparate details.” Diligencia and Amor helped too.

Gould’s pride in understanding the plot of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera is evident, as is his pleasure in being able to read a Latin dedication or finding a tie between the stoneless plum and US immigration policy. (Luther Burbank, who developed the plum, was also a “liberal” eugenicist who, in contrast to the conservatives who campaigned against migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, welcomed the prospect of combining them in a new American hybrid.) One of the few lapses to which Gould is willing to admit is “by-passing a youthful opportunity to learn the Papiamentu creole of Curaçao.”

All this can be—frequently is—irritating. The range of topics is as eclectic as ever and the paragraphs speed effortlessly by; but somehow, rather like driving across the Great Plains, for most of the time we seem not to be going anywhere special. There is, of course, plenty of instruction, well seasoned by anecdote, on the way. Medieval thinkers didn’t actually believe the earth was flat: that was a myth invented by nineteenth-century rationalist anxious to mock the established church; and the phrase “sweetness and light” comes from an Aesopian fable on the bee. What …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.

Letters

Not Cricket December 19, 1996