Spring 2008 - Volume 11 Number 2
|Reviews||I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History
New York: Harmony Books, 2002
The odd title of this collection of essays comes from an inscription on the title page of an English grammar book that was purchased by thirteen-year-old Joseph Rosenberg commemorating his arrive in New York City and foretelling his assimilation into American society. The book was subsequently added to the collection of Rosenberg’s grand-son, the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. The date of Rosenberg’s introduction to the city, and soon afterwards its garment district, was 11 September, 1901.
Exactly one hundred years later Gould’s airplane was diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the bewildered passengers were left on the tarmac for eight hours before repairing to a sports complex and awaiting cots. Gould’s gratitude is movingly expressed in an article he published in The Globe and Mail a week or so later. It is just one of thirty-one items that range in subject matter from syphilis to the Narthex of San Marco, and from Jim Bowie’s death at the Alamo to Sir E. Ray Lankester K.C.B., D.Sc., F.R.S., an unrepentantly conservative British gentleman who was among the nine people present at the burial of Karl Marx. Almost all of the articles in the book were published in the scientific journal, Natural History. It was Gould’s most frequent venue, for he wrote a total of three hundred monthly contributions between 1974 and 2001, and never missed a deadline “for cancer, hell, high water or the World Series.” The essays were published in ten anthologies. This is the last.
Most of us have heroes. One of Gould’s was New York Yankee centre-fielder Joe Dimaggio. One of mine is Stephen Jay Gould.
Gould’s academic career was made with one of his first articles, a collaboration with Niles Eldridge on a modification of Darwin’s theory of evolution called “punctuated equilibrium.” If that brought him to the attention of evolutionary biologists, it was his inventory of contributions to Natural History that made him famous. Gould was the best kind of popularizer of science the kind that brings a vast knowledge of other fields, weaves insights and information together in an often stunning tapestry and leaves the reader not only better informed. but also enlightened. Moreover, he did so by explaining even the most arcane scientific issues in accessible terms but never by “talking down” to the attentive reader.
I Have Landed has an inescapably elegiac tone. Gould’s last article in Natural History was published in January 2001, and, by May 2002, he had succumbed to a metastatic adenocarcinoma of the lung, a form of cancer that spread to his brain. Previously, in July 1982, he was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that affects the abdominal lining. Although his physicians explained that his life would be severely shortened, he made an astonishing recovery within two years, and characteristically used the occasion as a “teachable moment” to explain the vagaries of statistical medians to non-scientists.
Gould was devoted to detail. The “quirky” peculiarities of flora, fauna and human foibles were sources of inspiration. A passionate champion of biodiversity and a dogged foe of willful ignorance, he was a prominent foot soldier in the campaign against equal treatment for “intelligent design” in American science classrooms; yet, he was ever respectful of religion a non-practicing Jew and an agnostic who regularly sang Handel’s Messiah in Christmas masses, he embodied the humility that comes when we take science seriously and thus acknowledge that there are some unanswerable questions, at least at this stage of our evolution.
I Have Landed continues Gould’s essential themes: the enduring dialogue that joins the complementary magisteria of the humanities and the sciences; the wonderfully sympathetic portraits of some of our culture’s most famous (and sometimes obscure) figures; revealing excursions into intellectual history; and ardent forays into struggles with creationism. Even with his perennial opponents, however, Gould never sneers and displays no tendency to dance on the graves of those he has defeated in argument. There is a remarkable lack of “whiggish hindsight,” wrote Robin McKie even when discussing people who got their science hopelessly wrong.
Stephen Jay Gould has, on occasion, not been treated as generously by some of his critics. Among the most vocal has been evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, a close second to Gould in terms of fame as a scientific popularizer. His remarks have frequently undermined any scientific merit they may have had by using the somewhat shabby and philosophically absurd tactic of labeling Gould a Marxist because of his cheerfully professed “liberal” politics.
Some reviewers have worried that this last collection tends to be “mawkish” and can “reek a bit of saccharine.” Perhaps it is merely my own sentimentalism in play, but I have waited six years to write this note. It amounts to nothing but a long delayed acknowledgement that one of the finest men and masterful essayists of my generation is dead. Gould’s writing, of course, will continue to be enjoyed for generations.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at
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