The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History

Stephen Jay Gould, Author
Stephen Jay Gould, Author Harmony $25.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-609-60142-6
Reviewed on: 04/03/2000
Release date: 04/01/2000
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Harvard paleontologist Gould (The Panda's Thumb; Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle, etc.) first became known to nonscientists through his monthly essays in Natural History magazine, delving into topics involving fossils, geology, evolutionary biology and the history of science. After 27 years of columns, Gould has announced that he will stop writing them at year's end: these 24 essays represent his next-to-last assortment. The first two-thirds of the book address unknown or misunderstood figures from Renaissance, Enlightenment and Victorian natural history. Often Gould uses their careers to debunk triumphalist notions of foreordained, linear scientific progress, reminding us instead ""that scientists can work only within their social and psychological contexts."" Eighteenth-century scholar Johann Beringer wrote a treatise on the wondrous ""lying stones"" (Lugensteine) of Wurzburg, a hoax cruel colleagues planted to make him look dumb: ""Beringer could not have been more wrong about the Lugensteine, but he couldn't have been more right about the power of paleontology."" A colleague of Galileo's, ""the sadly underrated Francesco Stelluti"" deserves attention both as a pioneer of empirical method and as a demonstration of its limits. A subsequent moving but lightweight segment collects six short pieces, among them commemorations of Carl Sagan and Joe DiMaggio. Other essays retell with vigor and asperity the stories of how some right-wingers have misused Darwin, and of how later racists (some witting, some un-) have misinterpreted genes in order to justify social inequities. Reentering the debate about human genetics and behavior, Gould offers a nuanced view of the nature-nurture interaction: ""Both inheritance and upbringing matter,"" he summarizes, but ""an adult human being... cannot be disaggregated into separate components with attached percentages."" Gould says he hopes to ""fuse the literary essay and the popular scientific article into something distinctive"": the digressions, ideas and arguments here demonstrate once again that he has done so. 45 b&w illustrations. (Mar.)
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