Full House Essay - Critical Essays

Stephen Jay Gould

Full House

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

FULL HOUSE: THE SPREAD OF EXCELLENCE FROM PLATO TO DARWIN, Stephen Jay Gould’s booklength study, was written in conjunction with WONDERFUL LIFE (1989) to persuade readers to reconsider the conception of humanity as the crowning achievement of evolution. Often in the past scientists have depicted evolution as a kind of ladder that leads inevitably to the most complex and highly developed species, but Gould uses statistics, graphs, and multiple examples stretching from bacteria to horses to prove that any emphasis on one ideal form ignores nature’s overall system of variation. Instead of actively progressing, species adapt haphazardly, and they can become simpler rather than more complex, smaller rather than larger, and survive just as well. Nature is fundamentally passive about what it produces over millions of years of adaptation, and those species that are thought of as being somehow superior—humans, horses—are often in evolutionary terms stray offshoots of a wide system of variation.

Once Gould sets up his conceptual apparatus, he reinforces his thesis again and again, using baseball statistics, the superior evolutionary history of bacteria, cancer prognoses, and even trapeze artistry to reshape the reader’s perception of evolution. When he delves into statistics, Gould may at times leave his popular readership behind. The technical nature of mathematics and skewed distributions might surprise a reader expecting charming examples of animals illustrating Darwinian principles. Furthermore, Gould fails to work out the many possible implications of his findings for the reader. The key question of how this new interpretation affects the way humans see themselves remains unanswered. Still, Gould offers a compelling new model for understanding Darwinian evolution.

Sources for Further Study

Audubon. XCVIII, September, 1996, p. 112.

The Chronicle of Higher Education. XLIII, September 6, 1996, p. A23.

Library Journal. CXXI, July, 1996, p. 149.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 20, 1996, p. 10.

Nature. CCCLXXXIII, October 31, 1996, p. 771.

New Scientist. CLII, October 5, 1996, p. 46.

The New York Review of Books. XLIII, October 17, 1996, p. 33.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, September 22, 1996, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, June 24, 1996, p. 36.

The Wall Street Journal. September 5, 1996, p. A14.