Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. Stephen Jay Gould. Harmony.

Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin Book Cover Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin
Stephen Jay Gould
September 3, 1996

In his first single-subject book of original writing since the New York Times best-seller Wonderful Life, Stephen Jay Gould explores our misperceptions about the nature of progress, the nature of excellence, and the nature of nature.

With more than fifteen books in print, Stephen Jay Gould is the dean of contemporary popular science writers. In this iconoclastic but rigorously presented book, Dr. Gould demonstrates with his characteristic passionate humanism and rational clarity that, contrary to popular opinion, progress and increasing complexity are not characteristic of the evolution of life on Earth.

In Full House, Gould corrects the prevalent, anthropocentric view of the world with an eloquent argument for a new paradigm of progress in which variety – not complexity – is the true measure of excellence. In the process, Full House teaches us how to read trends as changes in variation within full systems, rather than as “things moving somewhere.” To illustrate this theme, Gould discusses seemingly disparate topics such as a drunkard’s walk along the sidewalk, the disappearance of 0.400 hitting in baseball, the absence of modern Mozarts, the evolution of the horse, and the continuing dominance of bacterial life on the planet. Full House shapes a unified, reasonable picture of nature, history, and life that is often at odds with what we intuitively “know” to be true.

A major scientific statement from a leading evolutionary scientist, Full House, in its boldest claim, asks us to reconceptualize our view of natural reality in a fundamental way. Just as a full house in poker expresses an excellence of all parts together, fortuitous in origin but shaped by selection, this Full House argues that variation is the ultimate reality of existence. As in all of Stephen Jay Gould’s writings, he supports his teaching and main arguments with an abundance of biological and paleontological marvels, anecdotes, and arcana – nothing less than Charles Darwin’s vision of “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” Gould celebrates the true nature of excellence of life on earth as demonstrated by the fullness and constancy of its variety, ingenuity, and diversity.

Stephen Jay Gould 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 Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New York City.