Wandering along the stream of natural history

Richard H. Smith Jr.

September 16, 1991|By Richard H. Smith Jr.

BULLY FOR BRONTOSAURUS: Reflections in Natural History. By Stephen Jay Gould. Norton. 540 pages. $22.95. IN 1862 England, Thomas Henry Huxley chose a simple piece of chalk to illustrate to the working men of Norwich the facts underlying the theory of evolution and the antiquity of the Earth. Some years earlier in his famous juvenile Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution, Michael Faraday employed a common candle to bring to the young people of London the essence of the chemistry of combustion. These 19th-century writers recognized, as all too few do today, that for science Richard H.Smith Jr.to gain popular acceptance and support, it is incumbent upon scientists to make their knowledge comprehensible. They combined a zeal for their subjects with a gift for clarity of expression and presented to their audiences the beauty and wonder of the natural world through the vehicle of familiar objects and events.

Stephen Jay Gould, professor of zoology at Harvard University and curator of fossil invertebrates at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, is one of today's foremost writers in the tradition of Huxley and Faraday. His stated objective is not to paint fascinating pictures of nature for their own sake; thus he uses neither the broad brush of Lewis Thomas, nor the poetic pastels of Loren Eiseley. Instead, he produces fine etchings from "original sources in their original languages" to illustrate scientific principles.

Gould pledges himself "to recovering accessible science as an honorable intellectual tradition," writing in language which contains "no compromises with conceptual richness; no bypassing of ambiguity or ignorance; removal of jargon, of course, but no dumbing down of ideas."

His most recent offering, "Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History," is a collection of 35 essays selected mainly from the past six years of his column, "This View of Life," published monthly in Natural History magazine. Those who have read and enjoyed his earlier collections, "Ever Since Darwin" (1977), "The Panda's Thumb" (1980), "Hen's Teeth" and "Horse's Toes" (1983) and "The Flamingo's Smile" (1985) will find "Bully" a worthy addition to the series.

Gould is a staunch advocate and clarifier of the principles of evolutionary theory, the thread which unifies this collection of essays. Although "Bully" presents concepts treated in his previous works, the examples chosen to illustrate these themes are fresh and captivating. A devoted fan of baseball, Gould uses the myth of Abner Doubleday to reveal our preference for creation over evolution as the mode of genesis. Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak is used to illustrate the interplay between chance and necessity in hitting streaks and evolutionary lineages.

By admission the author has undergone his own personal evolution as a writer. He has become a more polished and less strident essayist. His tone is less extreme, both in the theories he expounds and the opponents he chastises. This collection is easily the best of the five.

The majority of the pieces more than live up to the interest theititles pique. The subjects covered range far and wide, from the voyage of the Beagle to the journey of Voyager, from 19th-century Oxford debates to 20th-century Supreme Court decisions, from the single chromosome of a bee to the unexpected face of the Uranian moon, Miranda. Yet each essay is well researched and presented in an engaging manner which holds our attention while gently correcting our thinking, in a style which does not talk down to the reader, but rather invites one to join with the author in an adventure of discovery.

In his wandering along the stream of natural history, Gould stops every so often to pick up an interesting stone, seemingly at random. He examines it with both respect and curiosity and reveals to us the beauty and wonder of the events which led to its being. "Bully for Brontosaurus" is engaging, informative and addictive reading, a welcome alternative to the pap so frequently found masquerading under the guise of popularized science.

Richard H. Smith Jr. is professor of chemistry and teaches the history of scientific thought at Western Maryland College.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.