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A Stephen Jay Gould Highlight Reel

With it almost being Darwin Day, it seems only right to review a book on perhaps the best popularizer of evolutionary biology in the 20th Century, Stephen Jay Gould. As a paleontologist and historian of science, he taught at Harvard, and contributed regularly with over 300 monthly essays to the magazine Natural History, between 1974 and 2001.

Some of his articles have been boons for high school teachers trying to relate to their students, such as an article on the evolution of Mickey Mouse, which was republished in The Panda’s Thumb. Other essays had different impacts, including things on punctuated equilibria, spandrels, and the false appearance of progress in evolution. Still other times, he took direct issue with Richard Dawkins and The Selfish Gene, and to a lesser degree, E.O. Wilson and Sociobiology.

Medium ImageThe Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould (Amazon US/UK) is sort of a posthumous “highlight reel”.

I’ve never been quite sure if this style of book, a “greatest hits” if you will, is the way to go, as it cuts so much out. On the other hand, the number of essays and books that Gould authored are probably intimidating to most potential readers. Maybe only the most dedicated fans would be willing to go that far. Heck, I know that I had only read Full House, The Mismeasure of Man, and The Lying Stones of Marrekeck, although I’ve heard many of his essays described to me by teachers and professors in high school and college.

So I think that The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould was a great book for me.

The review from Publisher’s Weekly:

Harvard professor and National Book Award winner Gould was one of science’s best ambassadors to the general public until his death at 60 in 2002. These 44 essays represent his best-known pieces from his books and from essays for Natural History magazine, as well as never before published speeches. The editors have selected pieces on a wide range of subjects – from the ever-shrinking Hershey Bar, to his and Niles Eldredge’s theory of punctuated evolution and Freud’s adaptation of the (now abandoned) biological notion of recapitulation – which showcase Gould’s immense curiosity as well as his skill at explaining even the most obscure topics with clear and vivid language. Autobiographical essays are followed by scientific ruminations on evolutionary theory and how it has been understood, misunderstood and misused, ever since Darwin put pen to paper. This collection demonstrates Gould’s passion for life as well as his enthusiasm for, and awe at, the “majesty” of “the continuity of the tree of life for 3.5 billion years.” Gould’s many fans, as well as new readers, should find this collection intriguing as well as entertaining, an eminently suitable last hurrah for an amazing thinker.

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