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Penultimate Reflections in Natural History

by Stephen Jay Gould

Pub Date: March 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-609-60142-3
Publisher: Harmony

From the distinguished and eloquent Gould (Zoology & Geology/Harvard; Leonardo's Mountain and the Diet of Worms,

1998), a characteristically genial and stimulating intellectual stroll.

Contemplating his impending retirement from a nearly 30-year stint as the monthly essayist of Natural History magazine,

Gould offers here what he promises will be his next-to-last collection of essays. Despite the subtitle, most of these disparate

"penultimate reflections" do not discuss natural history, but the history of natural history. Gould's first three essays, presented

as discussions of the "nature of fossils and the history of the earth," are really erudite treatments of historic errors: a crude

18th-century hoax involving fake fossils; mistakes by 17th-century Italian scientists (including the great Galileo) relied too heavily

upon direct observation; and the misclassification (for over 200 years) of the molds of brachiopod shells as "vulva stones" based

on an accidental similarity to female genitalia. Thoughtfully and charmingly, Gould then talks about the observational, taxonomic,

and theoretical work of 18th- and 19th-century French and British naturalists, linking his insights to developments in the growth

of geology and natural history as scientific disciplines: Lavoisier, Lamarck, Lyell, Darwin, Richard Owen (who developed a theory

of dinosaurs), and Alfred Russel Wallace (who conceived the theory of evolution after Darwin, but before Darwin published his

identical theory) all receive this treatment. Often departing the realm of natural history altogether, Gould discusses (in a pleasantly

rambling fashion) the popular love of science; the origins of excellence in Mozart, Mark McGwire, Carl Sagan, Joe DiMaggio,

and Mel Allen (the "voice of the Yankees"); Darwinism vs. "social Darwinism"; the tendency to confuse mental systems with

reality; cloning and individuality; chemical warfare; short-term and long-term evolution; and spatial competition among species.

Vintage Gould: stimulating, erudite, and eminently enjoyable.