cover image Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin

Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin

Stephen Jay Gould. Harmony, $25 (244pp) ISBN 978-0-517-70394-6

A veteran intellectual daredevil, Gould (Dinosaur in a Haystack) climbs further out on a thought-limb than ever before in this paradigm-shattering book. ""I am asking my readers,"" he proclaims, ""finally and truly to cash out the deepest meanings of the Darwinian revolution and to view natural reality as composed of varying individuals in populations."" The implications of this view are enormous. The most cherished idea Gould challenges is that progress is characteristic of the history of life. In so doing, he undercuts a premise fundamental not only to most religious systems but also to the ideas of many evolutionists (he goes after E.O. Wilson here as vigorously as he does M. Scott Peck). Rather than encompassing a progression from simplicity toward complexity, evolution, says Gould, simply embraces a ""full house"" of a variety of organisms. Humanity is not a pinnacle of evolution, but an ""utterly unpredictable, partly random, and entirely contingent"" blip in a distribution pattern. Though Gould relies on much statistical evidence and analysis, he knows how to sugar the pill; for instance, by applying his reasoning to a lengthy, fascinating discussion of the increased rarity of the .400 hitter in baseball. Gould's thinking is solid, but careful readers will note that it is based on fundamental assumptions, including that biological mutation drives evolution, and that matter is primary to mind. The second assumption has received forceful scientific challenge in this century, particularly from quantum physicists. Still, Gould elegantly lays down a gauntlet here, and readers should rush to witness the first thrust in what may become a royal scientific duel. Author tour. (Sept.)