EIGHT LITTLE PIGGIES

REFLECTIONS IN NATURAL HISTORY

Who could resist a title like that—and, knowing the author, who wouldn't surmise that Gould (Bully for Brontosaurus, 1991, etc.) is again up to his old trick of demonstrating that five fingers and five toes are not the primordial/canonical mammalian standard. Thanks to the discovery of species of ancient tetrapods (four- legged terrestrial vertebrates) living upwards of 350 million years ago, we now have evidence of seven- and eight-toed critters. So Gould sounds forth on a favorite theme of diversity and experimentation early in the course of evolution, with bushy branches off the tetrapod trunk and not ascent up a ladder that ends in humanity. And that's just the title essay, one of 31 Gould has distilled here from his monthly column in Natural History. He offers a reader's guide up front, explaining his clusterings of essays, advising that he has at last addressed the issue of species-destruction by human interventions (in poignant essays on the passenger pigeons and species of snails, which are to Gould what beetles were to Darwin), and, finally, telling dear reader which are his favorites—and why. Of the latter, he likes his people pieces and those essays in which the fossil evidence itself is used to illuminate the thinking of scientists within a cultural milieu. Gould points out that scientific discovery is never an act of pure reason nor totally culturally relative, but a marriage of the two. Elsewhere, there are wonderful essays on setting the record straight (Eugene Dubois and Java man); anatomy (how jaw bones became ear bones); essays with baseball references, on Darwin, on the brain, on evolution.... In sum, essays that reveal Gould in midlife, as passionate and articulate as ever, but older and wiser. Gould says the columns will continue through January 2001—for which readers everywhere should be grateful. (Drawings.)

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1993

ISBN: 0-393-03416-X

Page Count: 507

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1992

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

Did you like this book?

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

THE BOOK OF EELS

OUR ENDURING FASCINATION WITH THE MOST MYSTERIOUS CREATURE IN THE NATURAL WORLD

An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death.

In addition to an intriguing natural history, Swedish journalist Svensson includes a highly personal account of his relationship with his father. The author alternates eel-focused chapters with those about his father, a man obsessed with fishing for this elusive creature. “I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream,” he writes. “I can’t remember us speaking at all….Because we were in…a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence.” Throughout, Svensson, whose beat is not biology but art and culture, fills his account with people: Aristotle, who thought eels emerged live from mud, “like a slithering, enigmatic miracle”; Freud, who as a teenage biologist spent months in Trieste, Italy, peering through a microscope searching vainly for eel testes; Johannes Schmidt, who for two decades tracked thousands of eels, looking for their breeding grounds. After recounting the details of the eel life cycle, the author turns to the eel in literature—e.g., in the Bible, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum—and history. He notes that the Puritans would likely not have survived without eels, and he explores Sweden’s “eel coast” (what it once was and how it has changed), how eel fishing became embroiled in the Northern Irish conflict, and the importance of eel fishing to the Basque separatist movement. The apparent return to life of a dead eel leads Svensson to a consideration of faith and the inherent message of miracles. He warns that if we are to save this fascinating creature from extinction, we must continue to study it. His book is a highly readable place to begin learning.

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

Did you like this book?

more