An Urchin in the Storm

In his preface to AN URCHIN IN THE STORM: ESSAYS ABOUT BOOKS AND IDEAS, Stephen Jay Gould hems and haws a bit about the propriety of a collection such as this. Are not book reviews by their very nature ephemeral? Surely he should know by now, having published several collections of magazine essays to great acclaim, that elaborate justifications are unnecessary. Readers who have encountered these pieces already in THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS will be glad to have them in book form; new readers will learn for themselves why Gould is regarded as one of America’s finest science writers.

The essays gathered here are divided into five sections: “Evolutionary Theory,” “Time and Geology,” “Biological Determinism,” “Four Biologists,” and “In Praise of Reason.” These are subjects which Gould has discussed extensively in other books, and inevitably there is some overlap, but the book-review format highlights his ability to combine lucid exposition with critical analysis. Throughout, he is forthright in stating his own presuppositions; “surely,” he writes, “the equation of bland nonpartisanship with objectivity--a silly notion fostered by the worst traditions of television news reporting--must be rejected.” Having made that refreshing point, however, Gould strives mightily to attain objectivity. Whether he is questioning the claims of sociobiology or casting a skeptical eye on Fritjof Capra’s blend of physics and mysticism, Gould insistently warns against the human propensity for allowing theory (or mere wish-fulfillment) to distort observation.

This emphasis connects with Gould’s favorite theme: “Life’s history is massively contingent--crucially dependent upon odd particulars of history.” The world is as it is not by necessity, Gould argues, nor by sheer randomness: “We can explain the actual pathways after they unroll, but we could not have predicted their course.” Thus he urges his readers not merely to accept diversity and unpredictability but to “revel” in life’s odd particulars.