Bully for Brontosaurus

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In one of the clinical stories discussed in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales (1986), the neurologist Oliver Sacks states that every human being has an inner narrative the meaning of which constitutes his or her identity. In the course of many centuries, scientists have discovered that our planet and the life that evolved on it have a continuous history (although punctuated by periods of dramatic, discontinuous change), and the universal laws undergirding this history constitute its meaning. In Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History, Stephen Jay Gould is concerned with both these internal and external stories as well as the interactions between them. In many of his essays he focuses both on the story of curious forms of life and on the personal stories of those involved in the study of these forms. In all this he is fascinated by the wondrous ability of the human brain to bring to light enthralling things about nature and to think even more enthralling things about what they mean.

Gould, who has taught biology, geology, and the history of science at Harvard University, has become, through his many articles and books, one of the most skillful and successful popularizers of science in the twentieth century. Phi Beta Kappa honored his previous work, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989), as the most outstanding book in science for 1990. For many years, Gould has written “This View of Life,” a monthly column for Natural History magazine, and he has selected the best of his essays to appear in four earlier books. He feels that this fifth volume, Bully for Brontosaurus, is his best because he has matured as a scientist and as a writer and because he has become more discriminating about what to include (he culled thirty-five essays from more than sixty). Some critics have found his popularization to be oversimplifications of very complex issues, but Gould, unlike the scholars who disparage the “vulgarization” of science, sees himself in the same tradition as Galileo Galilei, a scientist who enjoyed making his ideas and discoveries, as well as those of others, accessible to a wide audience.

The thirty-five chapters of Bully for Brontosaurus are organized into ten parts. At first glance, both the parts and the chapters appear to be dismayingly diverse. The parts range from “History in Evolution” to “Planets as Persons,” and the chapter titles range from “George Canning’s Left Buttock and the Origin of the Species” through “Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples” to “The Horn of Triton” (Triton is one of Neptune’s moons). Although certain themes help to interrelate many of these essays, the book suffers from the faults peculiar to this genre of collected magazine articles: repetitions, jarring differences in approach, tone, and content, and lack of narrative thrust from essay to essay and from part to part. It is certainly easier for a writer to reprint published articles than to mold a heterogeneous mass of material into a unified work with a propulsive argument. From such past books as Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1985), which is thematically organized and insightfully argued, it is clear that Gould is capable of such an integration of different facts and ideas, even though that book, too, had a haphazard origin. On the other hand, the kaleidoscope of essays in Bully for Brontosaurus has its advantages; for example, the essays can be read in any order with little loss of meaning.

Underlying the diversity of topics is a common approach for many of the essays. Gould generally begins with something to arouse the interest of the reader—some oddity of nature, the juxtaposition of widely dissimilar things that he promises he will connect, or a traditional interpretation of some idea or event that he states he will explain in a new way. He then works from this provocative starting point, usually via digressions, to some new perspective or fresh understanding. Surprises confront the reader at every turn of his analysis, and oddities are made to seem even odder before all is explained. Gould’s tone of intellectual confidence informs every level of his discussions. He has great faith in the power of the scientific method to solve the puzzles of nature.

A good example of Gould’s technique is found in the first essay of Bully for Brontosaurus, in which he promises to reveal a connection between Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) and a bullet in the left buttock of the statesman George Canning. Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, shot Canning in this unlikely place during a duel (Castlereagh was a dove during the War of 1812, whereas Canning was a hawk). The captain of HMS Beagle, the ship that took Darwin around the world, was Robert Fitzroy, whose mother was Castlereagh’s sister. Castlereagh, a manic depressive, eventually committed suicide, and Fitzroy feared that his family had a predisposition to self- destruction that was hereditary, hence his desire for a congenial companion—Darwin—on his long voyage. Darwin became an adept naturalist on the trip, and without this experience he never would have written the Origin of Species. Gould recognizes that this type of analysis has serious limitations, and the role of chance in history is even more complex than he indicates. The causation of suicide, with its psychological, social, cultural, and hereditary factors, is dauntingly mysterious, and no connections between such factors are certain because they are often modified by new discoveries.

For Gould, the quirks of history have similarities to the accidents of evolution, and the theme of evolution is a leitmotif throughout his book. He views evolution as the constant interplay between necessary scientific laws and the random happenings to which living and nonliving matter are subject. Some critics have claimed that he exaggerates the accidental in his interpretation of evolution and that his analysis is, at its root, simply a conventional treatment of how plants and animals adapt to their surroundings. Gould, for his part, insists that evolution is driven by chance and that traditional evolutionary thinking is mistaken in being insufficiently concerned with random events. When something appears to be odd or out of...

(The entire section is 2613 words.)