Thirty-one sprightly and invaluable essays, in which the play of “little odd tidbits as illustrations of general theories” the author has raised to an art form.
In his tenth and final collection of Natural History columns (after The Lying Stones of Marrakech, 2000, etc.), Gould is back in his favorite terrain of posing and then poking at intellectual puzzles, in which he has embedded some humanistic concern or referent in order to gain some better understanding of a scientific theme. Gould has never been a lyrical exalter of science and nature, but a taskmaster who might popularize his essays—namely, keep them free of exclusionary jargon—even while he demands the unwavering attention of his readers to follow his scientific peregrinations. How else to appreciate the commonalities between ex–Red Sox first baseman Bill Bruckner's weary legs and a letter written by Jim Bowie shortly before he died at the Alamo (hint: it has something to do with canonical stories and the distortion of acts)? Gould is a delight when leveling his heavy guns at the fatuous (“the anachronistic fallacy of using a known present to misread a past circumstance”) and the confused: “science is an inquiry about the factual sate of the natural world, religion as a search for spiritual meaning and ethical values.” Ever the gadfly, though, he'll follow that with “Science does not deal in certainty, so ‘fact’ can only mean a proposition affirmed to such a high degree that it would be perverse to withhold one's provisional assent.” Gould's world is rich in quirks and contradictions, human foibles and natural diversity, the sublime and the bumptious, high grandeur and low comedy, whether he is addressing the Linnaen system of classification or the destruction of the World Trade Center.
No more Natural History columns, but the future will no doubt see much more from Gould, a self-described addict of the short form. These essays trail in his wake like mushrooms after a rain. (b&w illustrations)