Analysis (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
For twenty-seven years, from January, 1974, until January, 2001, Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist and historian of science at Harvard University best known in scientific circles as the cocreator of the theory of punctuated equilibria, contributed a monthly essay to Natural Historymagazine, a publication of the American Museum of Natural History. In three hundred essays published under the general title “This View of Life,” a title derived from a phrase in Charles Darwin’s concluding sentence in On the Origin of Species (1859), Gould examined science, history, philosophy, art, and literature and the relationships and interactions among these human endeavors. Evolution—its history, scientific implications, and misuse—was his favorite theme. He always attempted to use very specific examples to illuminate very large issues in intellectual history and science. He prided himself in finding new ways to approach old topics. I Have Landed is the tenth, and last, collection of these essays, assembled before Gould’s death from cancer on May 20, 2002. Unlike the earlier collections, however, almost half (fifteen of thirty-one) of the contributions to this volume were not part of the Natural History series. They were originally published in such diverse places as an art exhibition catalog, the proceedings of a scholarly conference, a Canadian newspaper, and The New York Times.
The thirty-one essays are organized, as were Gould’s earlier collections, into categories or themes rather than by date of publication. (Gould did not provide bibliographic information for his Natural History essays, and did so for only some of the pieces taken from other sources, so in many cases the reader has only the vaguest idea of the chronological relationship among the essays.) The first grouping consists of only the title essay, which was the last Natural History essay he published. A mixture of sentimentality, history, and the sharp insights into evolution readers have come to expect from Gould, the essay looks at continuity in life, whether in the macrocosm of biological evolution or in the microcosm of a single family. At its core is the story of the immigration of Gould’s grandfather to the United States, an event recorded by “Papa Joe,” as Gould later knew him, in a grammar book with the words “I have landed.” This essay is followed by four that explore the relationship between humanistic endeavors—literature, history, the performing arts, and painting—and science. The third grouping consists of three short intellectual biographies, one of Gould’s favorite methods of illuminating a point. As was often the case, Gould either looks at familiar figures in a new light—for example, Sigmund Freud’s great failure or E. Ray Lankester’s presence at Karl Marx’s funeral—or resurrects an individual well known to contemporaries but forgotten by history—the popular science writer Isabelle Duncan, for instance. Next come three essays in which Gould takes ideas prevalent in an earlier time, ideas which now seem at best odd, at worst horribly misguided, and attempts to place them in their historical context and to demonstrate their logic within their own time. With these examples he hoped to illuminate the great strengths and limitations of the human mind.
The fifth section of I Have Landed represents a change in format. Apparently, there were simply not enough essays from either Natural History or other sources available to fill a book, so Gould included six short opinion pieces from newspapers and magazines. These opinion pieces all, in one way or another, defend Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. Only a fraction of the length of his other essays, these opinion pieces lack the well-developed arguments and the multitude of examples so characteristic of the longer essays.
The next two groupings represent a return to the more standard format and typical themes of this series. Ten essays, each focusing on different aspects of evolution, are divided into two sections. The first concerns the basic concepts of evolutionary theory, the second the implications or misuse of that theory.
Gould concludes with four very short pieces revolving around the events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath. The day of the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., coincided with the...
(The entire section is 1815 words.)
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