Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2012 Evelyn C. Leeper.

ADAM'S NAVEL by Stephen Jay Gould:
OTHER INQUISITIONS by Jorge Luis Borges:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/06/2006]

One finds references to Jorge Luis Borges in the oddest places. I was reading the title essay in ADAM'S NAVEL by Stephen Jay Gould (ISBN 0-146-00047-1), in which Gould discusses (and refutes) Philip Henry Gosse's OMPHALOS: AN ATTEMPT TO UNTIE THE GEOLOGICAL KNOT. Gosse's theory was that the world had been created by God out of nothing, but that there was a timeline before creation, implied but just as real as that after creation, and that Adam's navel, fossils in stone, and implications of growth and evolution before the time of Creation are all necessary to testify to this pre-Creation timeline. In a postscript, Gould writes that after the essay first appeared, he learned that Borges had written a comment on Gosse in "The Creation and P. H. Gosse" (OTHER INQUISITIONS, ISBN 0-292-76002-7). I find it amusing, if not downright bizarre, that the blurb on the back of OTHER INQUISITIONS from the "Saturday Evening Post" says, ". . . the word that best describes these essays is manly." I have seen many adjectives applied to Borges's writing, but up until now "manly" has not been one of them. ADAM'S NAVEL is one of those delightful "Penguin 60s" created for the 60th anniversary of Penguin Books.)

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EVER SINCE DARWIN by Stephen Jay Gould:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/26/2010]

I'm going to try something different with EVER SINCE DARWIN by Stephen Jay Gould (ISBN 978-0-393-30818-1). I'm going to try to summarize each essay in a single sentence. If nothing else, it should prove useful when I try to find which particular essay covered a given topic.

In the last essay, Gould makes an observation that is worth noting: "[E. O.] Wilson's intent is admirable; he attempts to affirm the intrinsic dignity of a common and much maligned sexual behavior [homosexuality] by arguing that it is natural for some people--and adaptive to boot (at least under an ancestral form of social organization). But the strategy is a dangerous one, for it backfires if the genetic speculation is wrong. If you defend a behavior by arguing that people are programmed directly for it, then how do you continue to defend it if your speculation is wrong, for the behavior then becomes unnatural and worthy of condemnation. Better to stick resolutely to a philosophical position on human liberty: what free adults do with each other in their own private lives is their business alone. It need not be vindicated--and must not be condemned--by genetic speculation." (written in the mid- 1970s)

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/08/2010]

QUESTIONING THE MILLENNIUM: A RATIONALIST'S GUIDE TO A PRECISELY ARBITRARY COUNTDOWN by Stephen Jay Gould (ISBN-13 978-0-099-76581- 3) is an old book (1997) in which Gould looks at "the millennium." He starts with how the whole idea of a millennium came about, how it changed from a thousand-year-period of Jesus's reign on earth to a thousand-year-period until Jesus's reign on earth, the evolution of our calendar and how it was connected to the millennium, and so on.

One passage in the introduction is of particular interest to science fiction (and alternate history) fans. Gould discusses how a thousand years as a round number is due to our base 10 number system and notes that many advanced civilizations used other bases. He then writes:

"And maybe, on a plausible alternative earth, the horse would not have become extinct in North America. The Mayans might then have domesticated a beast of burden, invented the wheel, and maybe even those two great and dubious innovations of ultimate domination-- efficient oceanic navigation and gunpowder. Europe was a backwater during the great Mayan age in the midst of the first millennium of our Christian era. Continue the reverie, and Mesoamerica moves east to conquer the Old World, makes a concordat with Imperial China--and vigesimal mathematics rules human civilization for the forseeable everafter. The millennium--the blessed thousand year reign of a local god known as Jesus Christ--then becomes a curious myth of a primitive and conquered culture, something that kids learn in their third grade unit on global diversity."

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/27/2012]

AN URCHIN IN THE STORM: ESSAYS ABOUT BOOKS AND IDEAS by Stephen Jay Gould (978-0-393-30537-1) is a change from most of Gould books in that it is a collection of book reviews rather than stand-alone essays. As such, while Gould can spend some time putting forth his own views, he is primarily constrained to address the take on a topic that is expressed in the book being reviewed. And it also makes the essays a little harder to follow if you haven't read the book.

There is some irony in one of the blurbs on the back, though: "What pleasure to see the dishonest. the inept, and the misguided deftly given their due..." Ten years or so after the publication of AN URCHIN IN THE STORM, Gould himself was one of those "deftly given [his] due" when a study showed that the measurements he had criticized in THE MISMEASUREMENT OF MAN were accurate, and his own measurements in challenging them were wrong. (This led to at least one article titled, not surprisingly, "The Mismeasurement of Gould".)

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WONDERFUL LIFE by Stephen Jay Gould:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/10/2007]

I re-read WONDERFUL LIFE by Stephen Jay Gould (ISBN-10 0-393-30700-X, ISBN-13 978-0-393-30700-9) as part of our recent trip to the Canadian Rockies, which included Yoho National Park, home of the Burgess Shale. (We got to see the area, but only from a few miles away, from across a lake several thousand feet below.) One reason that Gould is so readable is that he is not a narrowly focused scientist. He can write about the translation of Milton's PARADISE LOST for a German opera, and use the poetry of the Bible to illustrate a point: "The sources of [evolutionary] victory are as varied and mysterious as ... the way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid." [Proverbs 30:19; WONDERFUL LIFE, page 236]

The Royal Tyrrell Museum (of Paleontology) had the usual display on the descent of the horse from Hyracotherium (Eocene), Mesohippus (Oligocene), Merychippus (Miocene/Pliocene), and finally Equus (Pliocene/Holocene). Gould talks about how this is a rather poor example of evolution, since it implies to many people a directed progression, rather than (for example) the diversification of Darwin's finches. Gould sees the single descendent of the Hyracotherium as an example of failure, not success.

Gould also talks about how Charles Doolittle Walcott (the discoverer of the Burgess Shale) attempted to "shoehorn" the creatures of the Burgess Shale into existing groups of arthropods. While Gould says it is in part the difficulty of looking at things in a new way, there was a more basic philosophical reason. Walcott said, "It is a sublime conception of God which is furnished by science, and one wholly consonant with the highest ideals of religion, when it represents Him as revealing Himself through countless ages in the development as an abode for man and in the age-long inbreathing of life into its constituent matter, culminating in man with his spiritual nature and all his God-like power." Gould then says, "If the history of life shows God's direct benevolence in its ordered march to human consciousness, then decimation by lottery, with a hundred thousand possible outcomes (and so very few leading to any species with self-conscious intelligence), cannot be an option for the fossil record. The creatures of the Burgess Shale must be primitive ancestors to an improved set of descendants." But why? Walcott was willing to accept that Tyrannosaurus rex existed, yet T. rex left no improved set of descendants (that we know of).

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