Leonardos Mountain Of Clams
Lists with This Book. This book is not yet featured on Listopia. I enjoy these collections of Natural Science magazine essays by Stephen Jay Gould, but this is not his best one. Of the five I've read so far -- there are 10 altogether -- this is my least favorite. At his best SJG's essays play off a number of seemingly unrelated topics and then slowly, often dazzlingly, he weaves the disparate threads together.
He still does that here. But too often the essays are flat and lacking in the discursive fun that is his hallmark. I intend to read the other five books. But if you're going to read only one let me recommend either Dinosaur in a Haystack or Bully for Brontosaurus. Gould's Wonderful Life , about the Burgess Shale, is brilliant, too, but it's a stand-alone title and not part of the essay series. See my review for each of these. Dec 12, Trevor rated it really liked it Shelves: I read this book before I did reviews.
You see, there was a fad in the s in England to have an aquarium in your house. A whole series of technologies had come together at the same time — we learnt about the importan I read this book before I did reviews. A whole series of technologies had come together at the same time — we learnt about the importance of oxygen to going on living, glass making became industrialised and produced glass of consistent strength and clarity, we were able to transport sea water about the place — and all of this stuff was necessary before aquariums could possibly exist.
Essays on Natural History
But what no one imagined before we started having aquariums was the change this might make to how we see the world. Prior to having aquariums — where one looks directly at fish in an eye to eye view — fish and sea life was always either shown after it had been dragged up onto the shore or as if looking down on it from above in a pool. The perspective we now believe as being completely obvious and completely natural only came into existence relatively recently and was anything but natural or obvious prior to that.
The other lovely idea in this is that the top of Mount Everest is sandstone — that is, the top of our tallest mountain was once at the bottom of the ocean. I sometimes wish I had discovered Stephen Jay Gould earlier. My first proddings came from close friends to this day who were observants of the Islamic faith. I even chose creationism as my topic in Grade 9 or 10 for a 3 minute speech we had to write and recite from memory to an audience of parents — that is how committed I was to this cause. It featured the Chauvet Cave in France mentioned in this book by Gould, in a very interesting essay about unknown unfossilized humps on the backs of now extinct giant deer — or Irish Elk as their commonly mis-referred to as — that are now known about only through cave paintings.
When I reached college I encountered the notion there existed Christians who identified as Old Earth Creationists — an idea that I think I was rather dismissive of, but it lodged itself in the back of my mind as a possibility. I thought validity rested mostly on sound rhetorical reasoning. So many separate fields of science seemed to be unintentionally corroborating each other, and I think that was the point at which I became completely open to the possibility of an earth beyond 10, years in age lol , and I think a young and old earth were equally possible to me at that point. But it would take a persons of faith to convince me fully.
The following summer, I read C. I think one of the things I found most surprising was how flippantly C. I was puzzled but also a little amused how so many evangelicals could love C. Lewis and continually recommend his books, but feel so much animosity towards the theory of evolution and not feel like his books threatened their religious doctrines of creationism.
But I felt myself more and more sliding into acceptance of an earth that did not match a literal interpretation of Genesis, and aware of the many scientific fields, which seemed to have all separately arrived at the same conclusion regarding the age of the earth and the human species and so on.
It was likely because I thought McLaren to be an earnest person of faith, so committed to Christ, yet very insistent that evolution and an old earth were not really up for debate by Christian creationists, because the debate was a scientific one, and the appropriate scientists had for quite a while already arrived at a consensus.
Years later, having traversed the theological spectrum, here I am, reading Stephen Jay Gould, thinking maybe he could have saved me all this trouble, but also skeptical it could have ever worked out that way. A useful excerpt from the essay: I reply that only once, in nearly thirty years of teaching, did I experience such an incident. A very sincere and serious freshman student came to my office hours with the following question that had clearly been troubling him deeply: But my roommate, a proselytizing Evangelical, has been insisting with enormous vigor that I cannot be both a real Christian and an evolutionist.
So tell me, can a person believe both in God and evolution? I have never encountered a scientist who could so poetically weave so many bible verses throughout his scientific contemplations. It is incredibly beautiful. How else could I have ever learned that Robert Boyle wrote so much theology: Moreover, Boyle did not consider religion as a merely private matter.
He wrote as much about theology as about science, and he composed several treatises on the potentially harmonious relationship between these two disciplines, including the work analyzed in this essay. The net of science covers the empirical realm: The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. He emphasized that despite all the accumulated knowledge of humanity i. You have a specimen, a cubic centimeter of water or a frog or a pinch of salt or a star. You understand more and more specimens by fewer and fewer formulae.
There is the excitement. Of course you are always after the big one, the new key, the secret leverage point, and that is the best of it.
- Watermelon Wishes?
- Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History.
- See a Problem?.
As a consequence, what takes place in my room is less important. What is important is what I shall find when I leave my room and wander in the neighborhood. Before, I wandered as a diversion. Now I wander seriously and sit and read as a diversion. But science cannot describe the way many communities of people — living in various parts of the world, embedded in oral traditions and narratives, and continuing particular webs of interlocution — FEEL how old the earth is as, together, they move upon its mountains, trace lines along its shores, traverse its open plains, stare up at its forest canopies.
When fundamentalist scientists rudely intrude upon the lifeworld of quiet rural towns throughout the Americas, or poor villages of post-colonial Africa, insisting that their creationist views are backwards, regressive, and these people must be converted to the zeniths of Enlightenment Rationalism, are we not returning to the domain of colonialism itself?
Is it the task of these scientists to evangelize the masses regarding the age of the earth, or are there not more important things to educate people on? Or for that matter, more important things we have to learn from them? I heard a very wise confession from a Jewish rabbi at my school, who was also a retired professor of science and philosophy.
The belief that the earth is years old still means something to him — possibly a window into more ancient iterations of his community, past and even present for some people ways of seeing the wonderful world around them, of imagining their past and fostering the narrative currents, which brought them to where they were, and would carry their descendants along temporal paths to where we are today.
Feb 15, Gavin Leech rated it liked it. Start by listing Gould's virtues: For an academic, his prose is highly flavoursome and fun.
He has a considered opinion about Darwin's handwriting and the meaning of baseball. One of his essay collections was very important to me as a teen, showing me that I could unify truth-seeking and justice-seeking, and with sty Start by listing Gould's virtues: One of his essay collections was very important to me as a teen, showing me that I could unify truth-seeking and justice-seeking, and with style.
But this is all countermanded, because he is just not trustworthy on human topics , and neither on core evolutionary theory, I'm told. From his enormously influential, fallacious dismissal of intelligence research in general and Morton in particular , to his dishonest coup of public discourse over punctuated equilibrium pushing the flashy and revolutionary version in literary magazines, retreating to minimal and uncontentious forms in the science journals who could actually evaluate it , he muddied the waters even as he brandished real literary talent and noble political intentions.
Gould occupies a rather curious position, particularly on his side of the Atlantic. Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists.
All this would not matter, were it not that he is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory. Gould is the John Kenneth Galbraith of his subject. That is, he is a wonderful writer who is beloved by literary intellectuals and lionized by the media because he does not use algebra or difficult jargon. Unfortunately, it appears that he avoids these sins not because he has transcended his colleagues but because he does does not seem to understand what they have to say; and his own descriptions of what the field is about - not just the answers, but even the questions - are consistently misleading.
His impressive literary and historical erudition makes his work seem profound to most readers, but informed readers eventually conclude that there's no there there. We suggest that the best way to grasp the nature of Gould's writings is to recognize them as one of the most formidable bodies of fiction to be produced in recent American letters. Gould brilliantly works a number of literary devices to construct a fictional "Gould" as the protagonist of his essays and to construct a world of "evolutionary biology" every bit as imaginary and plausible as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.
Most of the elements of Gould's writing make no sense if they are interpreted as an honest attempt to communicate about science e. The author Gould, not least because he labors to beguile his audience into confusing his fictional targets with actual people and fields, is sadly none of these things. Yet in the final analysis, there are genuine grounds for hope in the immense and enduring popularity of Gould.
Gould is popular, we think, because readers see in "Gould" the embodiment of humane reason, the best aspirations of the scientific impulse.
Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms
We are supposed to love nature for itself, and we are, therefore, presumably charged with the task of characterizing and interpreting nature as she is so that interested people with less expertise can learn new information and draw appropriate messages, both factual and ethical. Well, I do love nature—as fiercely as anyone who has ever taken up a pen in her service. But I prefer to emphasize the interaction of this outside world with something unique in the history of life on Earth—the struggle of a conscious and questioning agent to understand the whys and wherefores, and to integrate this knowledge with the meaning of its own existence.
As another benefit of this humanistic focus, we acquire a surprising source of rich and apparently limitless novelty from the primary documents of great thinkers throughout our history.
JSTOR: Access Check
But why should any nuggets, or even flakes, be left for intellectual miners in such terrain? Let me share a secret rooted in general human foibles, and in the faint tinge of anti-intellectualism that has always pervaded American culture. Very few people, including authors willing to commit to paper, ever really read primary sources—certainly not in necessary depth and completion, and often not at all.
I stress this point primarily for a practical, even an ethical, reason, and not merely to vent my spleen. When writers close themselves off to the documents of scholarship, and rely only on seeing or asking, they become conduits and sieves rather than thinkers. When, on the other hand, you study the great works of predecessors engaged in the same struggle, you enter a dialogue with human history and the rich variety of our intellectual traditions. What could be more democratic than the principle that nuggets of real discovery abound in primary sources, located in such accessible places as major university and city libraries, for those willing to do the work and develop the skills.
I do, of course, acknowledge the impediment for most Americans that many of these works, representing the ecumenical range of international scholarship, have never been translated into English—a fact that should be a spur to study, and not a barrier. Good anatomists have told me that novel and important observations can still be made by dissecting a common frog, despite millions of prior efforts spanning several centuries. I can attest that all major documents of science remain chock-full of distinctive and illuminating novelty, if only people will study them—in full and in the original editions.
Why would anyone not yearn to read these works; not hunger for the opportunity? What a thrill, whatever the outcome in personal enlightenment, to thus engage the greatest thinkers and doers of our past, to thumb the pages of their own printings, to speculate about past readers who pondered the same copies with the differing presuppositions of other centuries, as the candle of nighttime illuminated their silent labor. The essays of the last two sections—on evolutionary theory, and on perspectives of other organisms—focus on the nonhuman side again with such exceptions, as chapter 14 on papal statements about evolution, chapter 15 on the contrast of Robert Boyle and Charles Darwin on natural design, and chapter 18 on Percival Lowell versus Alfred Russel Wallace on Martian canals and the true domination of earthly life by bacteria.
All these essays are grounded in a precious paradox that has defined the best of the genre ever since Montaigne: But if I confess some childhood humor in juxtaposing, for alliteration as well as content, the Diet of Worms with the Defenestration of Prague chapter 13 , then a seemingly superficial, even ridiculous, union wins legitimacy for joint illustration, and provides fair access to factual and moral dimensions of the general topic.
These essays probe, arrange, join, and parry the details within a diverse forest of data, located both in nature and in the documents of human struggle—all to access an inherently confusing but infinitely compelling world. As I survey the contents of this eighth volume, I find that I have followed four primary strategies to promote these details into coherent frameworks with sufficient generality to incite an essay.
In some cases, an intense study of original sources yields genuine discovery, despite the paradox that materials for a solution have always been patent. The excellence and prominence of his observations on fossils have been recognized—and dutifully honored in all accounts, popular, textbook, and technical—for more than a century, since the full publication of his private notebooks in the s.
But no one had identified the special reasons based on his own, and largely medieval, views of the earth as analogous to a living body for his intense focus on fossils, and for the placement of his statements in a codex largely devoted to the nature of water. So these wonderful observations had stood out, disembodied from context, and misinterpreted as the weird anachronisms of a transcendent and largely unfathomable genius. In most cases, I do not report observations never made before, but try to place unfamiliar or even well-known items into a novel context by juxtaposition with other subjects not previously viewed as related—invariably in the service of illuminating a general point about the practice of science, the structure of nature, or the construction of knowledge.
An outspoken advocate of the scientific outlook, Gould had been a vigorous defender of evolution against its creation-science opponents in popular magazines focusing on science. He wrote a column for Natural History and has produced a remarkable series of books that display the excitement of science for the layperson. The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. Stephen Jay Gould died on May 20, , following his second bout with cancer. Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms.