This review is edition-specific. Excellent, if highly abridged, reading of the famous popularization of linguistic nativism. Lalla Ward, Richard Dawki...moreThis review is edition-specific. Excellent, if highly abridged, reading of the famous popularization of linguistic nativism. Lalla Ward, Richard Dawkins's wife and once an actress on Doctor Who, is well known among those who like science audiobooks for her contributions to the audio versions of her husband's The God Delusion and The Ancestor's Tale. Her reading here is characteristically lively, and of course, the material leaves nothing to be desired. Especially good was that one interview with a subject intended to illustrate what Black English Vernacular (BEV) sounds like was an actual recording. I dock a star from the review only because more than half of the printed book was not present in this audio edition.(less)
Forget Montaigne and Bacon, in all seriousness: Stephen Jay Gould is the greatest essayist that ever lived. This collection is different from the nume...moreForget Montaigne and Bacon, in all seriousness: Stephen Jay Gould is the greatest essayist that ever lived. This collection is different from the numerous others available in two respects: first, it's only available on audio cassette, and a long out-of-print one, at that; second, it consists (so far as I can tell) of essays written for this collection, rather than reprints from his column in Natural History magazine, which allows Gould to weave the themed essays in and out of each other magnificently. The theme is in the title: evolution and extinction, that is, development and change and mortality. He muses on how diatoms survived the Cretaceous extinction and the Brothers Grimm's contributions to lexicology, on the development of human consciousness and on Alfred Russell Wallace's slavering, short-sighted commitment to natural selection as the only mechanism of evolution, quotes from the Bible several times, and somehow manages to turn it all into a nice, coherent whole. This is brain food.(less)
I gave Stuff of Thought 4 out of 5, even though it was totally amazing, for two reasons: a) that it was a little heavy on the linguistic lingo for a p...moreI gave Stuff of Thought 4 out of 5, even though it was totally amazing, for two reasons: a) that it was a little heavy on the linguistic lingo for a popular science text if you're not acquainted with the field, and b) it seems unimportant alongside Pinker's masterpiece, The Blank Slate, which those who haven't read Pinker should go for first(less)
When people use the word "synthesis" to describe a massive, multidisciplinary treatise, drawing from all areas of human knowledge to make a singularly...moreWhen people use the word "synthesis" to describe a massive, multidisciplinary treatise, drawing from all areas of human knowledge to make a singularly visionary point, they should be thinking of The Ancestor's Tale as the archetype for all others. There are a few other books out there that approach its scope (Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate get pretty close to the Grail) but none with so original a narrative. Dawkins borrows, with some modifications, the frame narrative used in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. If you're a classics fan, then, this is your best bet for a science book you can sink your teeth into.
In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer (the character) joins a band of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, and each tells a tale. Dawkins, here, is Chaucer, and his Canterbury is the earliest human ancestor. As he moves his way back through time, the other pilgrims, being chimpanzees, rats, whales, starfish, salamanders, dinosaurs, bacteria, and many other creatures great and small, tell tales, each of which reveals something poignant and remarkable about the nature of life on earth. The book is densely philosophical, but, at the same time, completely approachable, even to an evolutionary newbie.
This CD version is highly abridged (about half the text), but it's worth it to pick up both versions. Dawkins and his wife, Lalla Ward, make the book come to life. The reading is exceptionally spirited and conveys the ideas even better than the text version, I think.(less)
To be clear, Wonderful Life is not a perfect book, but it is certainly an amazing book. It's pertinent to ask, "Where does the book fall flat?"
First,...moreTo be clear, Wonderful Life is not a perfect book, but it is certainly an amazing book. It's pertinent to ask, "Where does the book fall flat?"
First, the middle section of the book, "The Reconstruction of the Burgess Shale," is just a little bit too long. I mean exactly what I said; a few pages, say, 20 or so, after you've said, "OK, I'm ready to get out of this murky details section and get on with the implications of it all," the section ends. As Gould points out, the section is, admittedly, important:
Pleading is undignified, but allow me one line: please bear with the details; they are accessible, and they are the gateway to a new world.
And bear with them you will, through about 200 pages of descriptions of, say, how the specimens of Opabinia or Hallucigenia were dissected, camera lucida diagrams, and repetitive descriptions of Harry Whittington's conservative temperament.
The best parts of the book are the first, fourth, and fifth sections. The first, "The Iconography of an Expectation," deals with the tendency amongst scientists and laypeople alike to see evolution as a linear process resulting in more and more complexity and always yielding intelligence. The fourth, "Walcott's Vision and the Nature of History," tells of the myriad expectations that led the original discoverer and describer of the Burgess to make the fatal error of placing all the Burgess biota, most of which were completely new to science, in previously known categories, as ancestors of modern creatures. And the fifth, "Possible Worlds," uses parts two and three (the ones with all the details) as a jumping board from which to explore the idea of punctuated equilibrium and its subsequent idea of contingency.
Punctuated equilibrium is the idea that evolution is not a straight line of progress. Rather, evolution centers on mass extinctions such as the extinction that killed 96 or 97% of life on earth, including most of the Burgess organisms. Evolution only works in a straight line up until a really mass extinction, and then all bets are off. Natural selection is so tied to local environments that if the environment changes it can mean game over:
Even if fishes hone their adaptations to peaks of aquatic perfection, they will all die if the ponds dry up. But grubby old Buster the Lungfish, former laughingstock of the piscine priesthood, may pull through... if we are Buster's legacy... how can we possibly view our mentality as inevitable, or even probable?
One instantly thinks of polar bears doomed by global warming. Gould calls the element of history that relies on happenstance and massively improbable coincidence "contingency," and he hammers its prevalence home with numerous examples—notably that the Burgess organism Pikaia was the earliest chordate, and its nonexistence would have erased us from history.
My main objection to contingency is complicated, but in the spirit of this review, I might ask you to bear with my details.
Sigmund Freud immodestly wrote that "humanity has in the course of its time had to endure from the hands of science three great outrages upon its native self-love": the discovery that our world is not the center of the celestial spheres but rather a speck in a vast universe, the discovery that we are not specially created but instead descended from the animals, and the discovery that often our conscious minds do not control how we act but merely tell us a story about our actions.
Science does have a proud tradition of muckraking by demoting the status of humankind further and further, from Lord of Creation, created in God's image, to just another ape on another rock in another galaxy. To most people, this is insulting, even troubling; to those who understand, to those who find themselves, like Job, "comforted that I am dust," it's humbling, and beautiful. But it does lead to a sort of playground-style fight over who among the sciences has demoted man furthest. Gould seems to be making a play here:
As Freud observed, our relationship with science must be paradoxical because we are forced to pay an almost intolerable price for each major gain in knowledge and power—the psychological cost of progressive dethronement from the center of things, and increasing marginality in an uncaring universe.
He's referencing Freud in order to tie in the concept with his view of contingency.
Here's where things get neat: think about SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. SETI optimists, people who feel that it is likely that the universe is populated by intelligent life (myself included), base our assumption on a certain feel for evolution. Carl Sagan was a SETI optimist; he felt that evolution follows, if not a straight line, per se, a route to progress. If Gould is to be believed that (a) contingency is all-important in understanding evolution and (b) contingency is one of Freud's demotions, then Sagan's converse idea should be empowering to man, in the sense that it indicates that evolution must eventually result in something like us. And yet—here is Sagan in his book Pale Blue Dot, titling a chapter "The Great Demotions," and claiming among those demotions the notion that we may not be alone in the universe!
The thing is that Gould is not the only supporter of punctuated equilibrium that upholds his ideas as those most demoralizing to mankind. Here's Michael Shermer in the Spring 2008 issue of Skeptic magazine:
Historical experiment after experiment reveals the same answer: we are a fluke of nature, a quirk of evolution, a glorious contingency. It is tempting to... write yourself into the story as the central pattern in order to find purpose and meaning... But skeptical alarms should toll whenever anyone claims that science has discovered our deepest desires and oldest myths are true after all... a purpose-seeking animal will find itself as the purpose of nature.
Shermer is responding to SETI optimism with a stone face. The point is that Shermer and Gould accuse SETI optimists of wishful thinking, without realizing that their notion so perfectly backs up the very teachings of the church: that we are alone and that we are the only intelligent life out there.—you see, the idea of SETI was once about where contingency is now. The idea of other people was very troubling to the religious; how could God send a saviour to two or more worlds? I'm not saying that contingency is a bad idea, and neither am I knocking punctuated equilibrium. I'm just saying it's not as much of a revelation as Gould thinks.
I'm done complaining.—so, what did Gould get right?
One of the major appeals of the book is his treatment of scientists as real, quirky people instead of arcane demigods; think the best parts of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything in more depth. Whittington, Briggs, Conway Morris, Walcott, and even Darwin come alive in these pages, in their words, if possible.
He also presents the details with arresting scope and clarity. Sidebars throughout help the layman through arthropod terminology, and the book is lavishly illustrated throughout. Gould's prose is stellar—each punctuation mark and word is devastating. Some say that he rambles, but they're missing the point, because Gould's rambling is his charm. He conveys his passion like few other science writers manage to do.
Finally, despite being 20 years old this year, the science in Wonderful Life is cutting-edge. After that long, there were bound to be some corrections: for example, Anomalocaris did not perish soon after the Shale's time; a relative named Schinderhannes survived until the Devonian, 100 million years after the Burgess. Furthermore, Anomalocaris and Opabinia are now considered lobopods, not their own distinct phylum. Hallucigenia walked on its "tenticles," not on its spines, making it substantially less hallucinogenic than once imagined. These are trivialities, in my opinion; for every incorrect guess, Gould makes three that panned out, including correctly placing Aysheiea in the phylum Onychophora, at a time when it was in dispute as to what it was, and calling that the Burgess represented a world-wide fauna based on a few Chinese fossils, guessing that more would show up (in the 2000s, the Changjiang fauna did indeed show up, replete with complete anomalocarids and primitive chordata related to Pikaia, theretofore a single specimen).
The facts are these: Wonderful Life makes you think. It's brilliantly written. And, at the end of the day, the creatures and fossils are just awesome. Paleo enthusiasts like me are all kids at heart, Gould being no exception at all.(less)
You've probably heard the joke about how you know the world's going through a strange time when the best golfer is black and the best rapper is white,...moreYou've probably heard the joke about how you know the world's going through a strange time when the best golfer is black and the best rapper is white, but what about when the best defender of evolution, and harshest critic of intelligent design, is Roman Catholic? Even PZ Myers, the "fifth horseman of the apocalypse," had to concede as much:
Miller is a fine writer who sharply addresses the details of the arguments about intelligent design creationism. When tackling old chestnuts such as the 'only a theory' complaint, or Michael Behe's argument for a maximum limit for the number of genetic mutations, or William Dembski's rehash of William Paley's watchmaker argument for complexity, Miller discusses the contemporary biological explanations while refuting the errors.
Indeed, Michael Behe is not so much the villain of the book, which centers on the 2005 Dover evolution trials, as he is its comic relief; I'm willing to wager that never has the major proponent of one side of a debate in science been portrayed as being so comprehensively lost and stupid by his counterpart on the other side. He's left with no leg to stand on, his ideas and claims shown comprehsively in a court of law to be founded on...
...absolutely nothing! Wow! It's like the incredible dissapearing evidence or something.
I won't do Miller's writing a disservice by rehashing his arguments here, suffice to say that you should read the book. He takes every ID-approved argument and sends it to the cleaners, most notably irreducible complexity, whether of blood clotting, bacterial rotifers, or mousetraps.
Of course, any scientist, be it Myers, Richard Dawkins (who was beaten in the race to get to use this book's title for his forthcoming book, and opted instead for The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution; don't miss it), Carl Zimmer, Neil Shubin, or anyone of their ilk, could do that, and do it well. What Miller does as a religious scientist is show that evolution and God aren't necessarily at odds, and that, in fact, a proper understanding of the natural world and how it works is entrenched within the Christian tradition as envisioned by Augustine. Again, I'm not going to rehash, but the book is actually quite convincing. I'm not sure that most readers would realize what a feat this is. Most attempts at reconciliation of faith and science end in tears, or, worse, laughs. Miller's ends only in careful contemplation of issues that, otherwise, many readers would have closed their mind to long ago.
In short, Miller's book can be described with that oh-so-rare combination of adjectives: good and timely. That he has co-written many textbooks currently in use in high schools across the United States is, to me (and I hope even to forerunners of the "New Atheists") a glimmer of hope.(less)