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Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History

by Stephen Jay Gould

Harmony Books, New York, October 1998

404 pages, hardcover

Review by Jim Walker

"No one has written of our illusions about progress in nature with more wit and learning than Stephen Jay Gould."
-Oliver Sacks

If you think of yourself as a Gould enthusiast, like myself, you will, no doubt, get this book regardless of who reviews it. It will not disappoint you. If you consider yourself a fan, you need not read further; so go out and get this book, sit yourself in your favorite chair, get a cup of java and read this collection of latest essays from Natural History magazine from one of America's most brilliant essayists.

Gould writes as a consummate historian about diverse subjects ranging from detailed aspects of science, art, religion and especially about the people who dwell in them. These essays orbit about the human intellectual pitfalls in studying and understanding nature and life. With a profound curiosity, humor, and compassion, Gould examines the paradoxes that prevail when humans confront the mysteries of life and nature.

Gould reveals Leonardo da Vinci's amazingly accurate observations of clams and earth erosion in the context of his own unorthodox (and wrong) beliefs; the hierarchical Linnean methodology of rocks from Mendes da Costa (an 18th century natural scientist); Walter Gaskell's incorrect(?) inversion theory about vertebrates and invertebrates; Percival Lowell's beliefs about extraterrestrial life (the astronomer who "saw" canals on Mars) and how we still hold remnants of his beliefs through the recent hypothesis about evidence of bacterial life in Martian meteorites; Vladimir Kovalevsky's evolutionary classification of horses; the coexistence of hominid species in evolution; The Dodo bird and its extinction from human interference; Martin Luther's defense at the Diet of Worms (no, it does not involve squirmy invertebrates) and his intolerance; in Triumph of the Root-Heads, Gould describes an actual life form so alien and bizarre, that it puts the inventions of sci-fi writers to shame; and lots more follows.

These essays continue Gould's main themes of the interdependency of theory and fact, and the evidence of branching (not linear) evolution. From his roots in evolution his essays evolve, branch-like, giving us interesting twigs of historical interests ranging from as diverse subjects as: sailing ships, steam ships, aquariums, J.M.W. Turner (the painter), Gilbert and Sullivan, Christopher Columbus, Lewis Carroll, Kipling, Catholicism, Boyle's Law, Pope Pius XII, Paleolithic paintings, just to name a few.

I also enjoyed Gould's Jewish agnostic position and his views of non-overlapping domains between science and religion. If I can find fault in this book, it comes from failing to mention that workable moral decisions can come out of complete secularity, superior to religious morality, and workable knowledge about the world can come out of unscientific folk empiricism. (I don't , for one moment, think Gould doesn't think this, only that his failure to mention it might produce a false impression to the naive reader). The realm of morals and useful knowledge need not come just from the two "non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA).

People interested in history, science, and religion should find this book edifying and entertaining. I found this book one of the most enjoyable reads from Gould so far.

A few quotations:

"The only universal attribute of scientific statements resides in their potential fallibility. If a claim cannot be disproven, it does not belong to the enterprise of science."

"Evolution is an inference from thousands of independent sources, the only conceptual structure that can make unified sense of all this disparate information ."

"Theory and fact are equally strong and utterly interdependent; one has no meaning without the other."

"Honorable errors do not count as failures in science, but as seeds for progress in the quintessential activity of correction."

"The equation of evolution with progress represents our strongest cultural impediment to a proper understanding of this greatest biological revolution in the history of human thought."

"Evolution has encountered no intellectual trouble; no new arguments have been offered. Creationism is a home-grown phenomenon of American sociocultural history-- a splinter movement . . . who believe that every word in the Bible must be literally true, whatever such a claim might mean."

"I am not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice. But I have a great respect for religion, and the subject has always fascinated me, beyond almost all others (with a few exceptions, like evolution and paleontology)."



Pieces of Eight: Confession of a Humanistic Naturalist

1. The Upwardly Mobile Fossils of Leonardo's Living Earth
2. The Great Western and the Fighting Temeraire
3. Seeing Eye to Eye, Through a Glass Clearly
4. The Clam Stripped Bare by Her Naturalists, Even
5. Darwin's American Soulmate: A Bird's-Eye View
6. A Seahorse for All Races
7. Mr. Sophia's Pony
8. Up Against a Wall
9. A Lesson from the Old Masters
10. Our Unusual Unity
11. A Cerion for Christopher
12. The Dodo in the Caucus Race
13. The Diet of Worms and the Defenestration of Prague
14. Non-Overlapping Magisteria
15. Boyle's Law and Darwin's Details
16. The Tallest Tale
17. Brotherhood by Inversion (or, As the Worm Turns)
18. War of the Worldviews
19. Triumph of the Root-Heads
20. Can We Truly Know Sloth and Rapacity?
21. Reversing Established Orders
Illustration Credits

To obtain this book, click below:

Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms

Other books by Stephen Jay Gould:

Questioning the Millennium (hardcover)

Full House (paperback)

Dinosaur in a Haystack (paperback; hardcover; audio-cassette)

Eight Little Piggies (paperback)

Bully for Brontosaurus (paperback)

Wonderful Life (paperback)

Urchin in the Storm (paperback)

Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (paperback)

The Flamingo's Smile (paperback)

Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes (paperback)

The Mismeasure of Man (paperback)

The Panda's Thumb (paperback)

Ever Since Darwin (paperback)