Good as Gould: a review

After more than twenty years of columns in Natural History magazine, Stephen Jay Gould is established as perhaps the best popular science essayist currently writing. Indeed, his introduction hints that Gould himself shares this opinion: "I am not a modest man," he confesses, having plenty to be immodest about.

This seventh collection's 34 essays are good stuff. As usual, they return repeatedly to Gould's favourite subjects of evolutionary theory, scientists' personalities, and snails. But, again as usual, he casts his net wider to discuss literature, museums old-fashioned and modern, creole languages, astronomy, extinctions, the coming millennium, and much more. Always there's the sense that Gould has done more work than necessary: when debunking Hollywood's persistent travesties of Frankenstein, he clearly made the rare effort of reading Mary Shelley's novel right through, and his trashing of similar dumbing-down in the Jurassic Park movie is strengthened by knowledge of Michael Crichton's somewhat superior novel.

Gould's laudable concern to get at the actual truth overrides the supposed party-political divisions of, say, science versus religion. There's a pleasant piece of creationist-bashing which mercilessly parades the various recently-discovered "impossible" evolutionary intermediates between hind-legged mammals and whales. But there's also a sharp attack on the notion that in the Dark Ages and mediaeval times, most scholars believed the Earth was flat -- a tale which appears to have been whipped up during the 19th century as rationalist propaganda against blinkered religion.

Gould excels at dismantling anecdotes which are too good to be true, and potters enjoyably in search of whether and when J.B.S. Haldane actually said that God "has an inordinate fondness for beetles". One writer recklessly had him saying it to Jowett, Master of Balliol, who died before Haldane was a year old. I liked this reteller's unabashed excuse: "Mundane constraints of time and space do not apply to stories about Oxford."

Sometimes, perhaps when stuck for material, Gould constructs laboriously rococo parallels which seem just too contrived -- for example, between the work of Linnaeus and an opera involving masks, because, er, Linnaeus unmasked Nature. It's a fine collection, though, with some genuinely moving passages, as when he visits New York during a partial solar eclipse and finds whole crowds of those famously uncaring city people being fascinated by improvised pinhole-camera projections: the shared joy of science. It made me wish I'd been there.