I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould Harmony Books 418 pages, hardcover Review by Jim Walker
This ends Gould's last book of a 10 book series of essays (300 in all) written for Natural History magazine that spanned from 1974 to 2001. Not only does this represent the last book of the series but, sadly, the last book he will ever write, because on May 20th, 2002, Stephen Jay Gould died from cancer at the age of 60. I learned about his death during the reading of this book, and it took me by surprise because I thought he had licked his cancer. I had waited anxiously for this book release and had looked forward to many more from him in the future. (Surely he would not stop writing just because he completed the essays for a magazine.)
Although the subject matter of Gould's essays usually involve biology, paleontology, evolution, and a little baseball thrown in, anyone who has read his books knows that the underlying theme in his essays involve a passionate epistemological look at how humans fail and succeed in understanding nature (including human nature). Gould's last book continues in this light and presents us with a recapitulation of many of the themes he had written about in the past.
Just to mention a few subjects in this book, Gould expresses his observation about the unity of creativity that connects art and science (no science without fancy, no art without facts); the misunderstanding about "native" plants; Jim Bowie's Letter & Bill Buckner's (a baseball player's) legs; Gilbert & Sullivan and the concept of excellence; Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt and the painter Frederic Church; the Darwinian at Marx's funeral; pre-Adamite beliefs; Freud's evolutionary fantasy; how syphilis spread in the Old World; the meaning of the word "evolution"; the fossil finds of feathered dinosaurs; age old fallacies; and several short pieces on the tragedy of September 11.
Stephen Gould had a love for language and became a master at choosing precise words to explain a complicated concept. He fully realized that many debates in science "arise from confusion engendered by differing uses of words, and not from deep conceptual muddles about the nature of things." Throughout his course in writing these essays, he had found a "distinctive voice" (his description) in humanistic natural history which includes intelligence, wisdom and wit. You can tell when he enjoys himself and does a bit of leg pulling, as for example when he uses the words "razed" and "raised" (pronounced the same but the antithesis in meaning of the other) in the same sentence: "...major taxonomic revisions often require that old mental designs be razed to their foundations, so that new conceptual structures may be raised to accommodate radically different groupings of occupants." Other playful examples include: "The process had been long and tortuous (also torturous)," "Nothing niggles me more than a dangling little fact..." Unless you have a full lexicon of the English language imbedded in your brain, it would serve you to have a dictionary handy within easy reach whenever reading one of Gould's books.
Stephen Jay Gould represents one of the word's best and masterful essayists. Although I had never met him (although I did see him in person discussing one of his books at a book fair), I felt that I had gotten to know him through his writings. His intelligence, wit, and high moral caliber showed that an agnostic can live a fruitful and fulfilling life without adhering to the whims of superstition. I will miss him and the many wonderful books that he may have written if he had not died so soon.
A few quotes from the book:
Coincidence and numerology exert an eerie fascination upon us, in large part because so many people so thoroughly misunderstand probability.
Charles Ives helped many folks by selling insurance, and Isaac Newton must have figured out a thing or two by analyzing the prophetic texts of Daniel, Ezekiel, and revelation-- but, all in all, a little more music or mathematics might have conferred a greater benefit upon humanity.
We must always struggle to avoid the primary error of historiography-- the anachronistic use of later conclusions to judge the cogency of an earlier claim...
No more harmful nonsense exists than this common supposition that deepest insight into great questions about the meaning of life or the structure of reality emerges most readily when a free, undisciplined, and uncluttered (read, rather, ignorant and uneducated) mind soars above mere earthly knowledge and concern.
The vertebrate brain seems to operate as a device tuned to the recognition of patterns. When evolution grafted consciousness in human form upon this organ in a single species, the old inherent search for patterns developed into a propensity for organizing these patterns as stories, and then for explaining the surrounding world in terms of the narratives expressed in such tales.
The two central and essential components of any narrative-- pattern and cause-- therefore fall under the biasing rubric of our mental preferences.
Thus, if our minds obey an almost irresistible urge to detect patterns, and then to explain these patterns in the causal terms of a few canonical stories, our quest to understand the sources (often random) of order will be stymied.
The allure of canonical stories acts as the greatest impediment to better understanding throughout the realm of historical science-- one of the largest and most important domains of human intellectual activity.
A great painter must also be a scientist, or at least committed to the detailed and accurate observation, and to the knowledge of causes, that motivate a professional scientist.
Aesthetic and moral truths, as human concepts, must be shaped in human terms, not "discovered" in nature. We must formulate these answers for ourselves and then approach nature as a partner who can answer other kinds of questions for us-- questions about the factual nature of the universe, not about the meaning of human life.
No error of historical inquiry can match the anachronistic fallacy of using a known present to misread a past circumstance that could not possibly have been defined or influenced by events yet to happen.
The subject may never come up in polite company, but if Adam and Eve mark a unique creation as a single pair, then whom did their son Cain marry?
Why did Cain need such a fancy ID [mark upon Cain], if no one else (except, perhaps, a few unnamed sibs) then inhabited the earth?
I have often been amazed at how few people, including creationists who swear that the Bible must be read literally, even remember that the creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 tell entirely different tales, when read at face value.
A real world regulated by genuine causes exists "out there" in nature, independent of our perceptions (even though we can only access this external reality through our senses and mental operations).
A truth that cannot be characterized, or even named, can hardly be conceptualized at all.
The improvement of knowledge cannot guarantee a corresponding growth of moral understanding and compassion.
Names and symbols enflame us, and wars have been fought over flags or soccer matches.
Benjamin Franklin's quip that, although Dr. Mesmer was surely a fraud, his ministrations should be regarded as benevolent because people who followed his "cures" by inducing "animal magnetism" didn't visit "real" physicians, thereby sparing themselves such useless and harmful remedies as bleeding and purging.
Evolution is as well documented as any phenomenon in science, as firmly supported as the earth's revolution around the sun rather than vice versa. In this sense, we can call evolution a "fact." (Science does not deal in certainty, so "fact" can only mean a proposition affirmed to such a high degree that it would be perverse to withhold one's provisional assent.)
Should I believe Julius Caesar ever existed? The hard, bony evidence for human evolution surely exceeds our reliable documentation of Caesar's life.
Let me suggest that, as patriotic Americans, we should cringe in embarrassment that, at the dawn of a new, technological millennium, a jurisdiction in our heartland had opted to suppress one of the greatest triumphs of human discovery. Evolution cannot be dismissed as a peripheral subject, for Darwin's concept operates as the central organizing principle of all biological science.
For sheer excitement, evolution, as an empirical reality, beasts any myth of human origins by light-years. A genealogical nexus stretching back nearly 4 billion years and now ranging from bacteria in rocks several miles under Earth's surface to the tip of the highest redwood tree, to human footprints on the moon. Can any tale of Zeus or Wotan top this?
Bork [Robert Bork] cites as supposed evidence for Darwin's forthcoming fall the old and absurd canard that "the fossil record is proving a major embarrassment to evolutionary theory." If Bork will give me a glimpse of that famous pillar of salt on the outskirts of Gomorrah, I shall be happy, in return, to show him the abundant evidence we possess of intermediary fossils in major evolutionary transitions-- mammals from reptiles, whales from terrestrial forebears, humans from apelike ancestors.
Darwin explicitly identified this "struggle" for existence as metaphorical-- best pursued by cooperation in some circumstances and by competition in others.
The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.
No single gene determines even the most concrete aspect of my physical being, say the length of my right thumb. The very notion of a gene "for" something as complex as "intelligence" lapses into absurdity.
Since genetic diversity roughly correlates with time available for evolutionary change, genetic variety among Africans alone exceeds the sum total of genetic diversity for everyone else in the rest of the world combined! How, therefore, can we lump "African blacks" together as a single group, and imbue them with traits either favorable or unfavorable, when they represent more evolutionary space and more genetic variation than we find in all non-African people in all the rest of the world?
- I Pausing in Continuity
- 1. I Have Landed
- II. Disciplinary Connections: Scientific Slouching Across a Misconceived Divide
- 2. No Science Without Fancy, No Art Without Facts: The Lepidoptery of Vladiir Nabokov
- 3. Jim Bowie's Letter and Bill Buckner's Legs
- 4. The True Embodiment of Everything That's Excellent
- 5. Art Meets Science in The Heart of the Andes: Church Paints, Humboldt Dies, Darwin Writes, and Nature Blinks in the Fateful Year of 1859
- III. Darwinian Prequels and Fallout
- 6. The Darwinian Gentleman at Marx's Funeral: Resolving Evolution's Oldest Coupling
- 7. The Pre-Adamite in a Nutshell
- 8. Freud's Evolutionary Fantasy
- IV. Essays in the Paleontology of Ideas
- 9. The Jew and the Jewstone
- 10. When Fossils Were Young
- 11. Syphilis and the Shepherd of Atlantis
- V. Casting the die: Six Evolutionary Epitomes
- DEFENDING EVOLUTION
- 12. Darwin and the Munchkins of Kansas
- 13. Darwin's More Stately Mansion
- 14. A Darwin for All Reasons
- EVOLUTION AND HUMAN NATURE
- 15. When Less Is Truly More
- 16. Darwin's Cultural Degree
- 17. The Without and Within of Smart Mice
- VI. The Meaning of Drawing of Evolution
- DEFINING AND BEGINNING
- 18. What Does the Dreaded "E" Word Mean Anyway?
- 19. The First Day of the Rest of Our Life
- 20. The Narthex of San Marco and the Pangenetic Paradigm
- 21. Linnaeus's Luck?
- 22. Abscheulich! (Atrocious)
- 23. Tales of a Feathered Tail
- VII. Natural Worth
- 24. An Evolutionary Perspective on the Concept of Native Plants
- 25. Age-Old fallacies of Thinking and Stinking
- 26. The Geometer of Race
- 27. The Great Physiologist of Heidelberg
- VIII. Triumph and Tragedy on the Exact Centennial of I Have Landed, September 11, 2002
- Introductory Statement
- 28. The Good People of Halifax
- 29. Apple Brown Betty
- 30. The Woolworth Building
- 31. September 11, '01
- Illustration Credits
To obtain this book, click below:
I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History
Other books by Stephen Jay Gould:
The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History (hardcover)
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)