(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Stephen Jay Gould thinks that evolution is the most exciting truth that any scientist has ever discovered. Since 1974, he has written numerous essays, most of them for his monthly column in Natural Historymagazine, in which he has explored the power of Darwinian theory to shed light on a variety of biological, environmental, and historical topics. He has collected these essays into six previous books, and in Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History, his seventh, he has cast his net of evolution over an even broader range of subjects than before, with a new emphasis on social, political, literary, religious, and ethical subjects. Gould appears well on his way to becoming, with Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, one of America’s great popularizers of science in the twentieth century.

While Gould’s essays are not personal in the conventional sense, he makes such extensive use of his own experiences that readers learn much about his character and life, in addition to his work. The heroes of his youth were his father and Charles Darwin, and his favorite author was D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, whose Growth and Form has been called the finest work of literature in all of science. Gould, who teaches biology, geology, and the history of science at Harvard University, is a creature of intense enthusiasms and antipathies. He likes dinosaurs, Bach’s B-minor Mass, the Yankee baseball team, old books, and the bus driver who, thirty-eight years ago, wrote in his autograph book: “A man of words and not of deeds/ Is like a garden full of weeds.”

He dislikes the ladder image for evolution, those who make science too orderly, and publishers who neglect papers claiming negative results. He depicts himself as a reasonable and tolerant humanist, but in some of his essays he seems a bit like Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion—a scientist blissfully unaware of his pride and arrogance. Indeed, he has much to be proud of, for an essay in this collection marks the completion of twenty years of writing his magazine column, having never missed a month, even through his battles with cancer. Critics have noticed a considerable variety in the tone of his essays: whimsical, melancholic, meditative, self-congratulatory, preachy, pedantic, and professorial, but this is to be expected for essays written at different times and for various purposes. Furthermore, he does not want his critics to consider him “just a science writer”; he sees himself as an “essay machine” in the tradition of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.

Gould attributes the success of his books of essays to his ability to discover insightful connections that harmonize the apparently inharmonious. The thirty-four chapters of Dinosaur in a Haystack provide ample evidence of such interconnections. For example, Gould’s joy is almost palpable as he uses the plot of Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera and the appearance of the botanist Carl Linnaeus and the Swedish King Gustav III on opposite sides of the fifty-kronor note to help readers understand how Linnaeus developed his system for classifying plants by their sex organs. In a chapter entitled “Cordelia’s Dilemma,” Gould moves from Cordelia’s silence before King Lear to the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium that he and Niles Eldredge developed in 1972. This theory argued that, contrary to popular conception, evolution is not gradual change but long periods of nonchange punctuated by bursts of rapid change. Similarly, in the chapter that supplies the book’s title, he moves from a favorite statement of Darwin (“the best one-liner ever penned”) to an investigation of mass extinctions in the late Cretaceous period. This statement—“How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”—leads to a discussion of the two-way street that must exist between scientific ideas and observations if human understanding of nature is to deepen. The theoretical must be saturated with the actual, but fascinating oddities, which pique the reader’s curiosity, can also be used to elucidate such grand ideas of evolutionary biology as change and stasis.

Some of the essays are mystery stories. Was Edgar Allan Poe guilty of plagiarism when he wrote a textbook on conchology (the study of mollusks and shells)? Why are students wrongly taught that medieval people believed the earth was flat? As in any good mystery, Gould subjects his readers to a series of digressions and surprises, and the mystery is sometimes made more mysterious before all is explained. Like the hero in classic detective stories, Gould, the intellectually confident scientist, is often the puzzle solver, although his confidence weakens when ethically complex human problems are involved.

Dinosaur in a Haystack has eight parts, with three to six chapters per part. Although it is difficult to see any narrative momentum from part to part, there is a vague trend from the physical through the biological to the human as the reader proceeds in order through the essays. For example, in part 1, Gould depicts the impact that the solar eclipse on May 10, 1994, had on him and many other people in New York City. For a short time highly disparate people, through their shared curiosity, brought their common nature to light. Another essay in this first part introduces the theme of science and religion, which plays an increasingly important role in later essays. This chapter, alliteratively titled “Dousing Diminutive Dennis’s Debate (or DDDD = 2000),” is concerned with the question of when humanity should celebrate the twenty-first century’s birth. Because the monk Dionysius Exiguus (“Dennis the Short”) decided, in the sixth century, to start the Christian era in a.d. 1 (and not the year zero), scholars have insisted that centuries must end in a double zero, and, indeed, Americans celebrated the start of the twentieth century on January 1, 1901. Yet Gould believes that because of popular culture’s present power, Americans will bring in the new century when 1999 turns into 2000.

Dionysius Exiguus believed that biblical stories explained both the universe and human history. By the nineteenth century, another narrative—the scientific—was ascendant. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the founders of this scientific vision—Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and Sir Isaac Newton—did not think of their story as a replacement for the great Judeo-Christian narrative but as an extension of it. Newton, whose discoveries were made in the service of...

(The entire section is 2712 words.)