Life’s Grandeur: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. Stephen Jay Gould. Jonathan Cape.

Life's Grandeur: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin Book Cover Life's Grandeur: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin
Stephen Jay Gould
Jonathan Cape

In his characteristically iconoclastic and original way, the bestselling author of Wonderful Life and Bully for Brontosaurus argues that progress and increasing complexity are not inevitable features of the evolution of life on Earth. Further, if we wish to see grandeur in life, we must discard our selfish and anthropocentric view of evolution and learn to see it as Darwin did, as the random but unfathomably rich source of ‘endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.’

What to do a drunkard’s walk, the prognosis for Stephen Jay Gould’s own cancer, Goethe’s observation that ‘trees cannot grow to heaven,’ the evolution of the modern horse, and the continuing dominance of bacterial life on the planet have in common? In Gould’s hands, such seemingly disparate topics are tools that shape a unified and rational picture of nature that is often at odds with what we intuitively ‘know’ to be true.

Life’s Grandeur is abundant with the fascinating arcana of paleontology in biology, the subtleties of mathematical analysis, and the heroic achievements of baseball players and the occasional scientist. But behind it all, as always in Gould’s popular writing, is a passionate belief in the completion of an intellectual revolution. Plato believed that abstract ideals are the fundamental reality, while the stones, flora and fauna of the world are merely its flawed and secondary reflection. Such a view may encourage us to see ourselves as closer than a gibbon to the ideal of life; but we flatter ourselves. We can and should appreciate human glory in human spheres. But any rational view of nature tells us that we are a simple branch on an immense bush; and that life on Earth is remarkable not for where it is heading, but for the fullness and constancy of its variety, ingenuity and diversity.

Steven Jay Gould is the Alexander Agassi Professor of Zoology and Professor of Geology at Harvard University, and the Curator for Invertebrate Paleontology in the University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. His books include Ever Since Darwin, The Panda’s Thumb, Wonderful Life, Eight Little Piggies and, most recently, Dinosaur in a Haystack.