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The Lying Stones of Marrakech:
Penultimate Reflections in Natural History
by Stephen Jay Gould
Harmony Books
368 pages, hardcover
Review by Jim Walker

This represents Gould's the next-to-the-last (penultimate) series of essays from Natural History magazine. As usual, Gould's essays cover a diverse area of investigation which includes science (especially paleontology, Gould's field), history, baseball (his favorite game) and lots of other interesting tidbits, all within a device that Gould calls "the humanistic bridge." In this collection of essays, there seems an undercurrent aim to explain the limitations and problems of thinking in terms of dichotomies. I don't know if Gould knows about General Sematics, but I think any general semanticist would admire Gould's views on how the filter of mental space and language shapes our interpretations of the world around us, and many times gets us into trouble.

I especially enjoyed Gould's view of Dolly the cloned sheep, the various Christian groups sharing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the examples of measurable evolution on timescales of years and decades.

A note about Gould's critics:

Ever since Gould's book "Wonderful Life" there has been a rash of severe criticisms by other evolutionists (such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Robert Wright) about Gould's interpretation of Darwin's natural selection and punctuated equilibrium. From my layperson's view it looks more like arguments based on professional envy with exaggerations committed on all sides. Perhaps Gould's (or his critics) interpretations will fail in the light of science's future discoveries. But as a skeptic, I take umbrage to critics claiming that Gould has mislead us lay-folks. I can't speak for others, but I recognize speculation when I see it and I see it occurring on all sides. It does, however, seem that Gould has taken the slightly higher road, by avoiding ad hominem and direct confrontation to his critics, yet attempts to clarify his position through analogy. I won't go into details about the arguments (those familiar with the spat will know ) but as an example, Dennett complains about Gould's use of illustrations of "the cone of increasing diversity" vs. the "view of decimation and diversification" (see Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Chapter 10, Section 4). I see, perhaps, an indirect answer when Gould does an excellent job of presenting the metaphor of Mandelbrot's fractals: "the coast of Maine has no absolute length, but depends upon the scale of measurement." Anyone who views from an extreme scale of measurement can find fault in another's interpretation if one wishes. As for the critics who (unfairly, I think) flame Gould's view of Cambrian diversity, Gould writes: "Even the most vociferous advocates of a genuine Cambrian explosion have never argued that this period of rapid anatomical diversification marks the moment of origin for animal phyla... The Cambrian explosion represents a claim for a rapid spurt of anatomical innovation within the animal kingdom, not an argument about times of genealogical divergence."

I don't always agree with Gould, especially his frustrating use of religious metaphor (especially considering his agnosticism) and sometimes embarrassing cliches. But regardless of how correct his opponents might judge him in the minutia of speculative arguments, Gould still stands as an exemplar of a good writer, explainer of the basic ideas of science, and his admirable attention to historical details. If anyone uses Gould's speculations as facts of science, then who's fault other than the believer should get blamed?

Lest any creationist see criticism of Gould as an example of failure of evolutionary theory and fact, they will have gotten it totally wrong. What remains strong out of the fray stands the unquestionable reality of evolution, all of which Gould's critics I think would agree, holds as a long established fact of science, just as real as gravity, regardless of whether you interpret it as Newton's, Einstein's or some future scientist's theory of gravity.

A few quotes from the book:

Hardly any faith can be more misleading than an unquestioned personal conviction that the apparent testimony of one's own eye must provide a purely objective account, scarcely requiring any validation beyond the claim itself. Utterly unbiased observation must rand as a primary myth and shibboleth of science, for we can only see what fits into our mental space, and all description includes interpretation as well as sensory reporting.

We must not equate the fading of a name through time with the extinction of a person's influence.

Objectivity cannot be equated with mental blankness; rather, objectivity resides in recognizing your preferences and then subjecting them to especially harsh scrutiny-- and also in a willingness to revise or abandon your theories when the tests fail (as they usually do).

Our understanding of nature must always reflect a subtle interaction between messages from genuine phenomena truly "out there" in the real world and the necessary filtering of such data through all the foibles and ordering devices internal to the human mind in its evolved modes of action.

I have always considered it odd... when a small minority divides the world into two wildly unbalanced categories of itself versus all others-- and then defines the large category as an absence of the small, as in my grandmother's taxonomy for Homo sapiens: Jews and non-Jews. Yet our conventional classification of animals follows the same strategy by drawing a basic distinction between vertebrates and invertebrates-- when only about forty thousand of more than a million named species belong to the relatively small lineage of vertebrates.

The fallacies and foibles of human thinking generate systematic and predictable trouble when we try to grasp the complexities of external reality. Among these foibles, our persistent attempts to build abstractly beautiful, logically impeccable, and comprehensively simplified systems always lead us astray.

As Darwin wrote in my favorite quotation: "How can anyone not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service."

If we wish to identify a biological analog for cultural change, I suspect that infection will work much better than evolution.

The absence of an expected statement can often be far more meaningful than an anticipated and active pronouncement.

We obtain our mitochrondria from the cytoplasm of the egg cell that made us, not from the nucleus formed by the union of sperm and egg.

Always suspect fashion (especially when the moment's custom matches your personal predilection); always cherish fact (while remembering that an apparent jewel of pure and objective information may only record the biased vision of transient fashion).

I can imagine no nobler rule of morality than this single phrase, which every human being should engrave into heart and mind: primum non nocere-- above all, do no harm.

About five-sixths of life's time had elapsed before animals made their first appearance in the fossil record some 600 million years ago. Moreover, the earth's first community of animals, which held nearly exclusive sway from an initial appearance some 600 million years ago right to the dawn of the Cambrian period 543 million years ago, consisted of enigmatic species with no relation to modern forms.

The claim that evolution must be too slow to see can only rand as an urban legend... In fact, a precisely opposite situation actually prevails: biologists have documented a veritable glut of cases for rapid and eminently measurable evolution on timescales of years and decades.

Measurable (and substantial) evolution has also, and often, been documented in vertebrates and other complex multicellular organisms.

We already know, by abundant documentation and rigorous theorizing, that natural selection can and does operate in nature.

During most of a typical species's lifetime, no change accumulates, and we need to understand why. The sources of stasis have become as important for evolutionary theory as the causes of change.

The etymology of religion may refer to "tying together," but the actual experience, given the propensities of Homo sapiens, the earth's most various and curmudgeonly species, tends more often to separation and anathematization.


I Episodes in the Birth of Paleontology
The Nature of Fossils and the History of the Earth
1. The Lying Stones of Marrakech
2. The Sharp-Eyed Lynx, Outfoxed by Nature
3. How the Vulva Stone Became a Brachiopod
II Present at the Creation
How France's Three Finest Scientists Established Natural History in an Age of Revolution
4. Inventing Natural History in Style
5. The Proof of Lavoisier's Plates
6. A Tree Grows in Paris: Lamark's Division of Worms and Revision of Nature
III Darwin's Century-- And Ours
Lessons from Britain's Four Greatest Victorian Naturalists
7. Lyell's Pillars of Wisdom
8. A Sly Dullard Named Darwin: Recognizing the Multiple Facets of Genius
9. An Awful Terrible dinosaurian Irony
10. Second-Guessing the Future
IV Six Little Pieces on the Meaning and Location of Excellence
Substrate and Accomplishment
11. Drink Deep, or Taste Not the Pierian Spring
12. Requiem Eternal
13. More Power to Him
De Mortuis When Truly Bonum
14. Bright Star Among Billions
15. The Glory of His Time and Ours
16. This Was a Man
V Science in Society
17. A tale of Two Work Sites
18. The Internal Brand of the Scarlet W
19. Dolly's Fashion and Louis's Passion
20. Above All, Do No Harm
VI Evolution at all Scales
21. Of Embryos and Ancestors
22. The Paradox of the Visibly Irrelevant
23. Room of One's Own
Illustration Credits

To obtain this book, click below:

The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History

Audio Cassette of above, unabridged edition

Other books by Stephen Jay Gould:

Rocks of Ages: Science & Religion in the Fullness of Life (hardcover)

Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (hardcover)

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)