The Richness of Life

by Stephen Jay Gould
June 21st, 2010

Mr. Gould was a prolific and suave writer; his essays were written for periodicals but they were regularly collected into books; I believe I have all his collected essays. He died some years ago, and this book is a collection of his best work. His work was so voluminous that the end result of a ferocious selection process is still 650 pages long. Yet it is still a page-turner; Gould’s writing is so elegant, so well-informed, and so gracious as to make the reading effortless.

He covers a lot of ground, but there are some basic themes that run through his essays. Those themes can be summarized as follows:

Evolution creates a bush, not a ladder. Homo sapiens is not the pinnacle of the evolutionary story, but merely one twig on a huge bush of species. There’s nothing special (in evolutionary terms) about mankind. Even the notion that we have conquered the world is idle vanity; bacteria eclipse us in biomass, ubiquity, and numbers.

Past thinkers weren’t as dumb as we suppose them to be. The fellow who calculated that the world began in 4004 BC was no fool; he really was rationally applying the best available knowledge of the time. We should not hold ourselves superior; in the same circumstances, most of us would have come to the same conclusions.

Evolutionary history is full of random events. If we were to repeat the experiment of evolution on a new but identical earth, we would probably come up with a very different evolutionary result; indeed, the evolution of our species hinged on so many flukes that it was in no wise certain that humanity would have appeared on this planet.

Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are a crock. Mr. Gould was very dismissive of this field of endeavor, holding it to be a form of quackery. I found his arguments hyperbolic; he was guided by a philosophical commitment to freedom of the will rather than a rational examination of the data. This is one area where Mr. Gould was just plain wrong. I have read several rebuttals of his arguments and they successfully demolish his reasoning.

Creationism and intelligent design are intellectual crimes. Mr. Gould was a vociferous defender of Darwinism and an indefatigable opponent of the antirational approaches of the creationists.

Science can be misused to support racism. In several essays as well as an entire book (The Mismeasure of Man), Gould exposes just how badly science has been misused in the past to support racist notions.

One or more of these themes run through most of his essays. I must confess, if you read all his books, Mr. Gould seems overbearing in advancing these themes, but this selection of essays reduces the repetitiveness and presents his themes in a fresher light.

All in all, I highly recommend this book to all readers. It requires no special knowledge of biology or evolution. Reading Gould will improve your own writing. I expect that many readers, having tasted Gould with this book, will seek out his other books.