Evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould has perfected the art of the essay in this brilliant new collection. These thirty-four essays, most originally published in Natural History magazine, exemplify the keen insight with which Dr. Gould observes the natural world and convey the infectious enthusiasm for fossils and evolutionary theory that has made his books award-winning, national best-sellers.
In his latest musings on evolution and other natural phenomena Gould reveals the uncanny interconnections among distinctly human creations – museums, literature, music, politics, and culture – encompassing a delightfully wide range of topics, from giant fossils, fans, and fungus to baseball, beeswax and blaauwbocks, from a humanistic look at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Erasmus Darwin’s poetry to the fallacies of eugenics and creationism and the moral imperatives of thinking people to meet the ethical challenges that pseudo-science presents.
Some of these elegant essays are detective stories, each with a mystery at its center: Why were images of snails printed backward and seventeenth-century treatises on conchology? Why are schoolchildren falsely taught that in the Middle Ages people thought the earth was flat? How could an 1842 receipt documenting the purchase of beer and sausage demonstrate the provenance of an extinct antelope? Only Stephen Jay Gould could read the literal closeness of two men printed on opposite sides of a banknote – Carolus Linnaeus and King Gustav III of Sweden – as an invitation to determine the basis for a symbolic interconnection, and only he could explain it with such style and intellectual virtuosity.
Gould’s Dinosaur in a Haystack embodies “the marriage of alluring detail with instructive generality,” the fascinating oddity in the natural world that can be explained and used as a fulcrum to circle back to the great themes of time, change, and history. Alternating between awe and amusement, trenchancy and poignancy at the particulars of human lives and nature’s ways, Dinosaur in a Haystack always carries its reader home to the centering idea of evolution – the most exciting natural truth that science has ever discovered.
Stephen Jay Gould is the author of fourteen books, including the New York Times best-sellers Bully for Brontosaurus and Wonderful Life. He is the Alexander Agassi Professor of Zoology and Professor of Geology at Harvard and the Curator for Invertebrate Paleontology in the University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. He lives in New York City and Boston.