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Dinosaur in a Haystack by Stephen Jay Gould

Dinosaur in a Haystack (1996)

by Stephen Jay Gould

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Full of interest, though a bit scattered and with a touch of the manic. Amazed to discover on page 374 that I'd read it before - perhaps 10 years ago. The item that rang a bell was the 3 meanings of "Bug" ( beastie, computer glitch, listening device). Of the rest, not a phrase was familiar, though some things seemed part of my general knowledge. What do we take in when we read? what remains? ( )
  vguy | Mar 17, 2016 |
A Darwinian's delight. Although much of the reading was dry, there were certain compelling essays. I particularly enjoyed (if that's the right word) the sequence on eugenics and the essay on Poe's scientific writing (maybe, maybe not). ( )
  AliceAnna | Oct 15, 2014 |
Dinosaur in a Haystack is a collection of 34 essays by Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Each essay involves some aspect of natural history as it intersects with contemporary life. The essays were originally published in the journal Nature, and this volume joins several other previous collections of Gould's work, including Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes and The Flamingo's Smile.

I read those two particular books about 30 years ago and remembered them fondly. I had anticipated the same previous delight in Gould's prose and the way in which he could make the sometimes esoteric aspects of natural history alive and relevant to today. I was disappointed. As I read through this volume it became apparent that what had changed was not Gould, but I.

Gould is a scientist, first-and foremost. Holding a chair at Harvard places him among the most distinguished of his profession, and as such, I would say that he faithfully holds to the party line. And that respect I mean that he is as Darwinian as they come. He has intimate acquaintance with the content of Darwin's The Origin of the Species and in my reading of Gould I find that Darwin is his touchstone. It is Darwin's work that forms the organizing place for everything else that takes place within natural history.

With Darwin as his foundation, and an unshakable one at that, for Gould, there exists, in Gould's view, no place at all for any other possible way of organizing creation. Which is to say that Gould makes no allowance for even the most remote possibility that there was a divine creator of the universe. This perspective comes through his persistently, and I thought quite curiously, as well.

The curious part is that Gould, as a product of a public school education in the 1950's, combined with his own former religious practice as a Jew, is much more fluent in the words of the Bible than the average person and he consistently incorporates scriptural references into his writing. Unfortunately, he uses them in an entirely secular fashion, missing entirely the Creator that they point to.

So Gould, and I approach the natural world from vantage points that have irreconcilable suppositions. His, per Darwin, as that the world that we know came about entirely through natural processes, without any involvement on the part of the divine. And for myself, I have come to understand that the complexity of the world is too vast for there to be anything but the involvement of a Creator. Both Gould's point and mine require accepting some things that cannot be fully explained. The difference is that I find plausible the words of the Bible for creation, while he finds the same words as window dressing for natural history. ( )
  BradKautz | May 4, 2014 |
Stephen Jay Gould is one of the most important writers about evolution and the biological science in general. His style is attractive and is easy to read even if you are not a specialist on the topic. This book in particular is one of my favorites in my library and is also useful to teach my ecology students. ( )
  dgbedoya | May 27, 2010 |
Elegant and erudite: Gould's 1996 collection of essays for "Natural History" magazine ranges over the broad and varied terrain of his intellect and curiosity, educating and satisfying the reader with elegance, wit and powerful reasoning.Gould delights in juxtaposing literature and science, the familiar and the unexpected. He chooses "Cordelia's dilemma" - her refusal to compete with her sisters in making loud protestations of love for their father, King Lear - as an analogy for "publication bias" - the reluctance of journals to publish boring negative results in favor of more interesting successful experiments. A positive result in a study of AIDS or cancer treatments wins headlines while later failures to duplicate those results are read by few. And most negative results never see publication at all. "Lear cannot conceptualize the proposition that Cordelia's silence might signify her greater love - that nothing can be the biggest something." In this collection, Gould divides his essays into eight sections. "Heaven and Earth" includes his marvelous experience of the effect of a solar eclipse on the citizens of New York City, and in "Literature and Science," he ruminates on the moral lesson of Frankenstein and Hollywood's subversion of it. "Origin, Stability, and Extinction" argues that the Cambrian explosion is even more the "key event" in the history of multicellular animals than previously believed, "Stability" includes "Cordelia's Dilemma," "Extinction" includes the title essay on Darwin's view that "all observation must be for or against some view." "Writing About Snails" delves into women's Victorian writings (I'm reminded of the value of negative results), "The Glory of Museums" explores "Dinomania" and "The Disparate Faces of Eugenics" revisits the hilarious arguments of an eminent scientist who argued that cancer causes smoking. "Evolutionary Theory, Evolutionary Stories," explores the arguments of Creationism and the origin of evolutionary science's best one liner (in answer to a question on the nature of the Creator) "an inordinate fondness for beetles," and "Linnaeus and Darwin's Grandfather" uses the whimsical observation of the "curious conjunction" of Linnaeus and Gustav III on a Swedish banknote to explore the scientist's classification theories (still used today) and his adherence to a religious Creationism. Certain themes recur in these essays. Gould is a staunch evolutionist and defends Darwin's theories vigorously, even when pointing out mistakes and misconceptions. He takes Creationism seriously - as a threat to scientific reasoning. His interest in natural history extends to the history of human thinking about nature and science. His essays are beautifully crafted, full of literary allusions, anecdotes and turns of wit but always to the point. He loves tracking down the precise source and context of oft-used quotes as much as he enjoys tracing the origin of flatworms, and manages to arouse his reader's interest in both. He is not a writer of wasted words. Best of all, Gould's essays are always as thought provoking as they are entertaining.
  iayork | Aug 9, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0517888246, Paperback)

Gould's seventh collection of essays covers a wide range of subjects in natural history, literature, and popular culture--from the wisdom of Charles Darwin to that of the Old Testament Psalms, from the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park to the dinosaurs of the latest scientific theories, from the thwarted humanity of the Frankenstein monster to the inhuman fallacies of eugenics and other pseudoscience. With black and white illustrations.

"Here is a new collection of Gould's unexpected connections between evolution and all manner of subjects, literature high among them. Gathered from his monthly column in Natural History magazine, these articles should delight, surprise, and inform his vast readership, as have his six prior volumes of essays. Somehow the light bulb pops on every month as his deadline approaches, some glowing fact pulled out of memory--often a line from Shakespeare or Tennyson--that illumines a                    generality Gould wishes to discuss. "Nature, red in tooth and claw" (Lord Alfred's line) induces dilations on the extent science can inform moral matters (not much, Gould believes); a remembrance of the infamous Wansee protocol prompts Gould's denunciation of the genocidal looting of evolutionary theory and, by extension, its vulnerability to ignoramuses in general. These two examples of the Gouldian essay method, fortunately, don't foreshadow a gloomy parade of topics: Gould can as easily alight at the fun house where mass culture absorbs ideas about evolution through movies of monsters run amok from Frankenstein to Jurassic Park. In other essays, he plunges directly into matters of evolutionary interpretation but customarily employs a literary twist: who else but Gould could link Edgar Allan Poe with his own area of professional eminence, the paleontology of snails? A discovery awaits in every essay--in every haystack--which solidifies Gould as one of the most eloquent science popularizers writing today."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:05 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould has perfected the art of the essay in this brilliant new collection. These thirty-four essays, most originally published in Natural History magazine, exemplify the keen insight with which Dr. Gould observes the natural world and convey the infectious enthusiasm for fossils and evolutionary theory that has made his books award-winning, national best-sellers. In his latest musings on evolution and other natural phenomena, Gould reveals the uncanny interconnections among distinctly human creations - museums, literature, music, politics, and culture - encompassing a delightfully, wide range of topics, from giant fossils, fads, and fungus to baseball, beeswax, and blaauwbocks, from a humanistic look at Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Erasmus Darwin's poetry to the fallacies of eugenics and creationism and the moral imperatives of thinking people to meet the ethical challenges that pseudo-science presents.… (more)

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