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Stephen Jay Gould. Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History

Bully for Brontosaurus (paperback) Bully for Brontosaurus (hardcover)
Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History
Gould, Stephen Jay
W W Norton & Co, New York
0-393-02961-1 (hardcover)
photographs, drawings & diagrams
Table of Contents
Evolution, Biology, Brontosaurus, Apatosaurus, Science, Natural History
American English
From the Dust Jacket
Stephen Jay Gould, who has set a new standard for the popular scientific essay over nearly two decades, presents his finest collection. Here are some of his thoughts, from the prologue to this volume:
"This is the fifth volume of collected essays from my monthly series, 'This View of Life,' now approaching two hundred items over eighteen years in Natural History magazine.... The themes may be familiar (with a good dollop of novelty, I trust), but the items are mostly new (and God has never left his dwelling place in the details).
"Against a potential charge of redundancy, may I advance the immodest assertion that this volume is the best of the five.... Covering six years of writing, it represents the best, or rather the most integrated, thirty-five pieces from more than sixty choices."
Stephen Jay Gould reaches for a wide audience. Speaking of this effort, he says, "I deeply deplore the equation of popular writing with pap and distortion for two main reasons. First, such a designation imposes a crushing professional burden on scientists (particularly young scientists without tenure) who might like to try their hand at this expansive style. Second, it denigrates the intelligence of millions of Americans eager for intellectual stimulation without patronization.... I know this in the most direct and possible way—by thousands of letters received from nonprofessionals during my twenty years of writing these essays, and particularly from the large number written by people in their eighties and nineties, and still striving, as intensely as ever, to grasp nature's richness and add to a lifetime of understanding....
"We must pledge ourselves to recovering accessible science as an honorable intellectual tradition. The rules are simple: no compromises with conceptual richness; no bypassing of ambiguity or ignorance; removal of jargon, of course, but no dumbing down of ideas (any conceptual complexity can be conveyed in ordinary English)....
"Some people have seen me as a polymath, but I insist that I am a tradesman. I admit to a broad range of explicit detail, but all are chosen to illustrate the common subjects of evolutionary change and the nature of history.... My emotional joys center on the improbable but sometimes wondrous works of that tiny and accidental evolutionary twig called Homo sapiens. And I find, among these works, nothing more noble than the history of our struggle to understand nature—a majestic entity of such vast spatial and temporal scope that she cannot care much for a little mammalian afterthought....
"But remember that, to an evolutionary biologist, persistence is the ultimate reward. And human brainpower, for reasons quite unrelated to its evolutionary origin, has the damnedest capacity to discover the most fascinating things, and think the most peculiar thoughts."
My Summary
Mr. Gould is, of course, right in stating that Man is a "tiny and accidental evolutionary twig" and a "little mammalian afterthought", and he further asserts in this book that anything Man could possibly do to the world he lives on cannot alter the fact that the earth itself and even life on it will survive in some form or other in the evolutionary time scale. What I do not agree with is his conclusion that one therefore need not be so concerned with environmental conservation, for two reasons. First, we can and should strive to make our own lives and that of our descendents more livable. Secondly, we have a responsibility to the millions of fellow citizen species living on this planet, not to carelessly affect their living conditions in a negative way, since we are the only species capable of making global changes. This is however only one of the many interesting points he makes in Bully for Brontosaurus, which I otherwise enjoyed immensely and recommend heartily.
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Last updated November 7, 1997, by Robbin D. Knapp
Copyright © 1997 Robbin D. Knapp