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Journal of No. 118


November 1st, 2010

Lying Stones of Marrakech by Stephen Jay Gould @ 04:43 pm

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The Lying Stones of Marrakech is Gould's penultimate volume of essays from Natural History, the magazine he wrote for regularly from 1974 to 2001. These essays date from the late 90s. The wiki-link there has external links to many of the original essays.
As usual, these essays run far afield. They center on biology, palaeontology, history of science, and history, though inevitably his hobbyhorses of leftism, punctuated equilibrium, and baseball raise their heads from time to time to neigh.
On the whole I enjoy his essays and particularly the way he draws in unique analogies and comparisons, and tracks down science legends in their historic lairs, and shows the difference between how things actually happened compared to the 'moral story' that is usually provided in textbooks.
All the same, there are places where I disagree with his view of science. There's a continuum of Kuhnism that ranges from society having no effect on science, to society having some minor influence on science, to science being a human, social activity, to science being socially constructed, to science being (merely) a social construct. From time to time, I feel Gould slips too far toward the latter end of the spectrum for a few sentences.
But for the most part, there's just some great essaying on display. Of course it's very sad that not long after he retired from essaying as he rang in the new millennium, Gould was dead. Sadly, some of the essays already feel dated, as Gould's piquant allusions to pop culture yellow with age. On the other hand, others are never more timely, such as the first line of his 1998 essay "Above All, Do No Harm":
Long, stagnant, and costly wars tend to begin in idealistic fervor and end in cynical misery.
 
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Journal of No. 118