Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History
FULL HOUSE: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin
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 is more, evolution happened in three fits and a start (sudden bursts…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.