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College Quarterly
Spring 1996 - Volume 3 Number 3
Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections on Natural Histiry
Stephen Jay Gould
New York: Harmony Books, 1995
Reviewed by Ian Lea

As a non-scientist interested in natural history, I find that most scholarly publications are not tempting to readers without specialist training. What a pleasure, then, to read a science writer whose wide scope and thorough research read like literate journalism. In the tradition of Galileo, Darwin, and T. H. Huxley, Stephen Jay Gould is a great populist whose latitude (in an age of over-specialization) embraces all subjects worthy of sustained attention, and whose intelligence scans the achievements and limitations of science with brilliance, skepticism and tolerance. In addition to his duties as Professor of Zoology and Geology at Harvard and Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, each month Gould publishes an intellectual excursion in Natural History magazine. For over 20 years he has periodically collected these discursive adventures into sizable volumes with Lewis Carroll titles like Hen's Teeth and Horses' Toes, The Flamingo's Smile, Eight Little Piggies, and so on. Some volumes like Bully for Brontosaurus and Wonderful Life (his inquiry into the contingency of vertebrate life as revealed in the fossils of British Columbia's Burgess shale) have become bestsellers and prompt the conviction that the appetite for science “without tears” must be very great in the literate public. Dinosaur in a Haystack is the latest collection to reveal his astonishing encyclopedic range.

Gould is a polymath who traffics in connections, whose purpose is to put things into perspective. The theme that binds these 34 essays together is evolution in its various manifestations. Even a brief sampling of their contents-the millennium controversy, Edgar Allan Poe's foray into natural science, the Victorian proscription of women from scientific institutions, leaf fossil DNA, Tennyson as proto-evolutionist, the common features of geographically distinct creoles, the taxonomy of Linnaeus-gives only a sketchy notion of his compass and diversity.

Gould discusses new theories of evolution to which he has offered a significant reassessment. The evolutionary paradigm of gradualism (slow and steady change) is the intellectual harvest of a socio-political belief in change as a cultural force that has dominated two centuries. Although Darwin himself was a gradualist, the fossil record gives credence to Gould's theory that long periods of evolutionary stasis are punctuated by episodes of sudden, relatively rapid evolution (“punctuated equilibrium”). The mass extinction of species (the demise of the dinosaurs, for example) illustrates his premise. Luis and Walter Alvarez have promulgated the theory that dinosaur extinction was caused by an extraterrestrial cataclysm (a meteor striking the Yucatan). The Shoemaker-Levy comets that crashed into Jupiter in July, 1994, left impact scars larger than the earth with a force 500 times greater than our entire nuclear arsenal. Imagine the damage of a small meteor hitting earth and the attendant adjustments to evolutionary stasis, including the disappearance of the dinosaurs! This particular extinction allowed other species such as mammals to flourish. These punctuations in evolutionary change, Gould believes, “are usually events of branching speciation, generally occurring in small and isolated populations within an interval (many thousands of years) that appears glacially slow at the inappropriate scale of a human lifetime.”

A second, persistent theme of consistent importance recurs in these essays: How can we organize effectively what knowledge we have without the false assumptions of our human vanity or the smug dismissal of past knowledge because it is no longer fashionable? (Without a rich store of accumulated cultural wisdom, we become the victims of our own ephemeral vulgarities.) If modern society is to avoid the pernicious tendency to become exclusively self-referential, we must identify certain pervasive fallacies: (i) that all change is from the simple to the complex, that all linear development means progress and that our era (being latest) is necessarily the best; and (ii) that the history of mammalian development leads inevitably to the goal and apogee of big-brained human beings and the purpose of evolutionary development as realized in us. (The absurdity of the latter is demonstrated by the fact that primates branched out much earlier from the mammalian tree than many other species-elephants and seacows for example.) Correcting the anthropocentric imbalance that posits that we are the last and best product of evolutionary process is a task that, despite scientific support from the fossil record, is far from complete. Evolutionists even today are fighting in rearguard skirmishes with stubborn creationists even at the same time as they self-correct their own paleontological models. Controversies between science and religion are usually centred on dogmatism, which is inimical to them both, but at least science has regularly overturned its own dogmas: Einstein's hip throw of Newtonian certainties and Darwin's reforging of the creationist chain of being are only two of many examples.

Gould, however, challenges some of science's own shibboleths. T. H. Huxley, for instance, said that “science is simply common sense at its best; that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic.” In this simplistic view, science advances in a straight line of increasing knowledge fueled by the Prussian rigors of the scientific method. Often hard scientists are tempted to narrow their purview to quantifiable finities and the compulsive order of the laboratory, consciously turning their attention from the chaotic abundance of nature. In so doing, too much is rejected or ignored. Fresh insights are often repelled unless they can be accommodated within the established constraints of theory and language. Gould comments on the publication bias (the preference of editors for “good stories” with positive results over “non-stories” or negative results) and the reluctance of established thought to conceptualize alternative systems. New theories frequently are accepted because they fit snugly into existing paradigms of expectation, but at times, of course, a new prototype is needed.

Gould also acknowledges the error of too much specialized distance from a literate, general audience. The methods of science, like everything else in human experience, are preferential and deeply influenced by the cultural milieu. In other words, the ideal scientist-an objective automaton with perfectly determinate responses and a special communication that transcends public understanding-is, in Gould's terms, “a self-serving mythology”:

The myth of a separate mode based on rigorous objectivity and arcane, largely mathematical, knowledge vouchsafed only to the initiated may provide some immediate benefits in bamboozling a public to regard us as a new priesthood, but must ultimately prove harmful in erecting barriers to truly friendly understanding, and in falsely persuading so many students that science lies beyond their capabilities.

Gould supports open intelligent discussion, After all, Galileo wrote his dialogues in Italian to inform the literate community of his day, and Darwin himself composed the Origin of Species as a general work for the literate public, not as a technical treatise for scientists.

Today scientific literacy is-in inverse proportion to its increasing complexity-at an all-time low. Trained by corporations and the mass media to be docile consumers, we enjoy the benefits of science and technology without understanding them. Interest in paleontology is focused more on Hollywood confections like Jurassic Park with its many inaccuracies (for example, none of the killer carnivores in the movie actually derive from the Jurassic period) than a museum of natural history, but even museums are succumbing to the bells, whistles and “interactive” button pushing of electronic wizardry. Granted, technology allows us to see artificial versions of the world in ways that nature cannot readily provide, but can the fertile profusion of nature be authentically rendered in such Disneyworld models? To be truly communicative with others who are not initiates in the mysteries of science is mandatory. Gould is one of the initiated, but like a magician who shows how the tricks are performed, he prefers to weigh his scholarship on the scales of human experience. When an annular eclipse briefly brings cynical, abrasive New Yorkers into an “eclipse community” for a moment on May 10, 1994, Gould relishes this divergence from habitude as the human capacity for wonder in the presence of a natural marvel is revealed. These aberrations from the quotidian make up his traveling wonder show that makes all knowledge its property. For Gould the scientific and the humanistic cannot be differentiated: they have one identity.

Ian Lea teaches English at Seneca College in King City, Ontario.