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Dinosaur in a Haystack (1996)

by Stephen Jay Gould

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1,373810,503 (3.91)13
From fads to fungus, baseball to beeswax, Gould always circles back to the great themes of time, change, and history, carrying readers home to the centering theme of evolution.
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Although some of Gould's books were pleasurable reads for me, this collection of his essays was a little bit tedious for some reason. He is an engaging essayist, but I suspect that so many years after his untimely death, his style and the subjects he treats are a bit...well, dated. It doesn't seem possible, but there times I had to put this book down and leave it for a day or two before reading the next essay. ( )
  nmele | Mar 5, 2020 |
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 |
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For my only brother, Peter (1944-1994)

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Michel de Montagne, traditional founder of the essay as a literary genre, wrote a short letter as a preface for his Essays (1580).
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From fads to fungus, baseball to beeswax, Gould always circles back to the great themes of time, change, and history, carrying readers home to the centering theme of evolution.

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