Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms
This collection of essays from NATURAL HISTORY magazine is Stephen Jay Gould’s eighth in a series which includes THE PANDA’S THUMB: MORE REFLECTIONS IN NATURAL HISTORY (1980) and DINOSAUR IN A HAYSTACK: REFLECTIONS IN NATURAL HISTORY (1995). As in his earlier work, Gould’s overriding interest in LEONARDO’S MOUNTAIN OF CLAMS AND THE DIET OF WORMS: ESSAYS ON NATURAL HISTORY is the examination and celebration of the evolutionary process upon which the natural world is founded. In this collection, however, he focuses more closely on what he calls “humanistic natural history,” that is, the interaction of the human consciousness upon the natural world. He is less interested here in writing about nature for nature’s sake and more concerned with the human effort to comprehend and to explain nature. As he considers the human side of natural history, Gould examines papal teachings on science and evolution, horrid acts of genocide such as the Defenestration of Prague and the slaughter of German peasants which followed the Diet of Worms, and the research and theories, both right and wrong, of great scientists of the past, including Leonardo Da Vinci, Carolus Linnaeus, Robert Boyle, and Charles Darwin.
The twenty-one essays are organized in six thematic groups, ranging from art and science, to biographies of famous scientists, aspects of prehistory, reflections on events in human history, evolution, and challenges to accepted world views. In some Gould offers the results of his own research, such as his explanation of Da Vinci’s work on clam fossils. In others he makes unusual pairings, such as an examination of the work of Richard Owen and T. H. Huxley. Occasionally Gould gives a new perspective on a familiar topic, such as the history of the aquarium or describes some fascinating natural phenomenon, such as the physical characteristics and habits of the sloth. In every case, however, he provides the reader with a delightful and informative excursion into the world of natural history.