Interesting. Gould wrote these essays around the time that the Alvarez meteoric impact theory was being published. This is something that we now knowInteresting. Gould wrote these essays around the time that the Alvarez meteoric impact theory was being published. This is something that we now know to be beyond doubt. But at the time, when it was just being introduced, the theory, and especially its association with the Cretaceous extinction, was not immediately embraced on the part of paleontologists. This led Luis Alvarez, no doubt in his frustration, to call paleontologists "not very good scientists." Oh dear! But Gould's coverage of the developing story is very fine and can be followed here and in his subsequent books, especially The Flamingo's Smile....more
This book is 30 years old and still highly readable. It's about biology, more specifically about Darwinian evolution and the history of science. QuiteThis book is 30 years old and still highly readable. It's about biology, more specifically about Darwinian evolution and the history of science. Quite good and gripping writing explaining what is still pretty much the current state of our knowledge.
Gould has a fondness for rehabilitating scientists who were wrong for interesting reasons. In this volume those figures include: Edward Tyson (who sought to place chimpanzees next to humans as the next link in the great chain of being theory), the Rev. William Buckland (who misinterpreted evidence of past glaciation as proof of The Flood), Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (who straddled the epigenicist/preformationist embryology debate of the 18th century), and the father of taxonomy himself, Carolus Linnaeus (whose work was also skewed by the false great chain of being theory).
Gould is always careful to point out that no science is without its limiting cultural or social preconceptions. Scientific knowledge, moreover, is conditional, never fixed, and changes with our ever modifying understanding of it. He writes:
Good arguments don't provide nearly as much insight into human thought, for we can simply say that we have seen nature aright and have properly pursued the humble task of mapping things accurately and objectively. But bad arguments must be defended in the face of nature's opposition, a task that takes some doing. The analysis of this "doing" often provides us with insight into the ideology or thought processes of an age, if not into the modes of human reasoning itself. (p. 284)
Fascinating. Life on another planet, virtually. So different is it from the Earth most of us know. Unsummarizable. And to think the author was 13 whenFascinating. Life on another planet, virtually. So different is it from the Earth most of us know. Unsummarizable. And to think the author was 13 when he wrote it....more
I enjoy these collections of Natural Science magazine essays by Stephen Jay Gould, but this is not his best one. Of the five I've read so far -- thereI enjoy these collections of Natural Science magazine essays by Stephen Jay Gould, but this is not his best one. Of the five I've read so far -- there are 10 altogether -- this is my least favorite. At his best SJG's essays play off a number of seemingly unrelated topics and then slowly, often dazzlingly, he weaves the disparate threads together. He still does that here. And the best essays, "The Diet of Worms and the Defenestration of Prague" and "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" are right up there with his very best. But too often the essays are flat and lacking in the discursive fun that is his hallmark. I intend to read the other five books. But if you're going to read only one let me recommend either Dinosaur in a Haystack or Bully for Brontosaurus. Gould's Wonderful Life, about the Burgess Shale, is brilliant, too, but it's a stand-alone title and not part of the essay series. See my review for each of these....more
Just a brief note before I begin. Among my friends The Royal Family is either five stars or one star. So I take it this is not the kind of book one feJust a brief note before I begin. Among my friends The Royal Family is either five stars or one star. So I take it this is not the kind of book one feels ambivalent about. Well, I loved his Europe Central and have high hopes for this one. I understand he's particularly good at writing about sex, which is very hard to do. We'll see....more
A book about wonder and a wonderful book. The story of the Burgess Shale -- from its initial misinterpretation to its reassessment 50 years later -- iA book about wonder and a wonderful book. The story of the Burgess Shale -- from its initial misinterpretation to its reassessment 50 years later -- is mind blowing. This limestone outcropping high in the Canadian Rockies near British Columbia — which was once a near equatorial climate at sea level 530 million years ago but now sits at an altitude of 8,000 feet — has revealed about 150 previously unknown arthropod genera and entirely new species with anatomies that would be unimaginable to us today had Charles Doolittle Walcott not discovered them in 1909.
Gould calls these animals with their diverse anatomies "weird wonders" and explains that their broad proliferation was possible because the middle Cambrian was a time of filling the so-called "ecological barrel." In other words, it was a time of low ecological competition among animals which ultimately permitted unsuccessful anatomies to flourish for a few million years before the full panoply of evolutionary pressures (natural selection) began to eliminate the less successful designs.
Another thing learned from the Burgess Shale is the imprecision of "survival of the fittest." Certainly, adapting to environmental change is vital, but it's not the whole ballgame. The adapted animal also needs luck on its side, luck that it cannot possibly have any direct role in affecting. I refer to the importance of contingency. Gould calls it "decimation by lottery," and given its sway religious adherence solely to classic evolutionary principles such as gradualism, etc., becomes short sighted.
Finally, if you will accept my argument that contingency is not only resolvable and important, but also fascinating in a special sort of way, then the Burgess not only reverses our general ideas about the source of pattern – it also fills us with a new kind of amazement (also a frisson for the improbability of the event) at the fact that humans ever evolved at all. We came this close (put your thumb about a millimeter away from your index finger), thousands and thousands of times, to erasure by the veering of history down another sensible channel. Replay the tape a million times from a Burgess beginning, and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again. It is, indeed, a wonderful life. (p. 289)
If you're like me, one who wonders why we were set down on a speck of interstellar dust in the midst of a universe so vast we daily fail to comprehend its age and scale, this book is for you. Gould is a fabulous writer. He writes with a minimum of jargon, and concepts of any complexity he is careful to explain. But he does this without being tedious; he does it, in fact, while sharing his own boundless sense of fascination. Gould was a brilliant man, a rare amalgam of top-flight scientist, science writer, and teacher. When he died 10 years ago he left a great hole in the landscape of writers who could engagingly write for the general reader about evolutionary biology and paleontology. There is simply no one else like him working today. I'm in the process of reading all of his books. There are about 20. Highly recommended for those with an interest in science, particularly the life sciences....more
Deepak Chopra’s new book, The Future of God: A Practical Approach to Spirituality in Our Times, is a very poor book for a number of reasons. I want toDeepak Chopra’s new book, The Future of God: A Practical Approach to Spirituality in Our Times, is a very poor book for a number of reasons. I want to enumerate those reasons, but first let me tell you about another book, a very fine one, Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God. (Knopf, 2009, 406 pp.) A scholar of comparative religion, Armstrong writes that virtually all world religions have historically depended on a foundation of silence, or what she calls “unknowing.” This is the silence through which one gets intimations of the Divine presence, and it is based on the sacred teachings.
Armstrong says that there never was a presumption on the part of early theists that they could grasp God. God was beyond human comprehension. Since direct knowledge was not possible the only alternative was what she calls kenosis (Greek “self emptying”). This technique, which she describes, leads one toward the necessary quiet contemplation of God. So religion was not in its early days about "belief." No one was expected to believe in God. In fact, the idea of belief as we know it today did not even exist then, two millenia or so ago. That happened when the scientific revolution came along. The scientific method taught that facts were either right or wrong. Either you could repeat the experiment, or you could not.
Gradually there was a shift from kenosis, from the gentle act of self-emptying for purposes of contemplation of God in silence, to one which began to seek "scientific proofs" for God's existence. For instance, it was at first thought that the incredible detail revealed by microscopes was a sign of the Divine. William Paley, an English clergyman, wrote about this in his Natural Theology.
Then two things happened that threw this new approach to “knowing” God on its ear. First were advances in geology. Geology showed that the earth was not created in six days, as stated in Genesis; rather it pointed to time spans (hundreds of millions of years) almost beyond human comprehension. Then came evolution. Darwin showed us that homo sapiens and his fellows were not created all at one time and set down on the planet in their current form. Evolution showed us that there was no Intelligent Design, for its process (natural selection) was not in any way directed. That is to say, it was a geologically slow and muddled process marked by eons of struggle, most of it futile, not to mention extinction.
So here we are in the present day. The fundamentalists believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible (or the Koran or the Talmud). Something never required of early worshippers. Somehow it has come to be thought that religion must be match science truth for truth. And religion of course, with its basis in sacred narrative, can never do that.
This brings me to Deepak Chopra’s new book, The Future of God. The book is such a morass, such a muddle of half thoughts and inchoate statements that at first I hardly knew how to begin my review. (I suspect it may have been dictated. Not that there’s anything wrong with diction if you edit and revise, but Mr. Chopra does not seem to have even given this mess a second reading. I surmise it was just dictated, hurriedly, transcribed, and sent to the publisher. After all, why actually work on a book when you know it will sell a 100,000 copies? And Chopra publishes books like most people use toilet paper.)
Chopra attacks those he calls the militant atheists, particularly Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and others. Chopra enters into an insanely outdated mission to lend creedence to Paley’s argument for Intelligent Design. He falls into the very trap that Armstrong laid out in The Case for God. He tries to match proofs with the science of Dawkins et al with regard to God’s existence. It can't be done. I was stunned reading that!
Moreover, Chopra doesn’t understand evolution. If he did understand it he would not need to rail against its seeming Godlessness. For the mechanism of natural selection that Darwin passed down to us does not, to my mind, exclude the idea of a Creator. But because Chopra doesn’t understand evolution, which, admittedly, can be highly counter-intuitive at times, he rejects it wholesale. Just astonishing!
Unlike Armstrong, Chopra does not argue for the existence of God in our daily lives from its basis in the extensive mythical narratives that have come down to us. He’s argues for a God in the abstract, wholly disconnected from its vast narrative core. There’s no substantive discussion of the great books of world religion here. Chopra is a very traditional fellow, extolling divine inspiration and healings, which he takes at face value.
Let me say at this point that I am an agnostic (evolutionist Thomas Huxley's term). I believe in something out there, but I don’t know what it is. I admire normal religious people for their ability to reflect inwardly and live confident and productive lives. (For a moving portrait of such persons see Marilynn Robinson's fine novel Gilead.) So I think the average religious person has an advantage on me in that they have the confidence of faith, while I do not.
At any rate, I cannot recommended this book. If you want a substantive consideration of God in historical context with the great books of revelatory monotheistic faith, I highly recommend Armstong’s The Case for God....more
Appendix II, with its apoplectic rant against Schliemann's Troy and the false leads provided by the archaeological record in general, is alone worth tAppendix II, with its apoplectic rant against Schliemann's Troy and the false leads provided by the archaeological record in general, is alone worth the price of the book....more
A book which must not be rushed through, that's how beautiful the language is. It's hard to believe it was translated from the German. A book about thA book which must not be rushed through, that's how beautiful the language is. It's hard to believe it was translated from the German. A book about the will to live, among other things, and the richness of life even in reduced circumstances. To read it merely as an account of life in the Gulag would be too limiting. It goes much deeper.
Late in life a gay man remembers what it was like to be transported from his family home in Romania to the Russian Gulag. It was 1945 and he was a 17-year old ethnic German and so must be made to pay for the crimes of Hitler. Romania was a combatant allied with the Axis Powers. Needless to say, this young man had nothing to do with it. Moreover, what should have been for him a memorable period of sexual awakening was in fact a time when homosexuality was a crime punishable by death, a time when Stalin--the murderer of 20 to 40 million of his own people--still ruled.
The novel is based on the true story of the poet Oskar Pastior who lived just long enough to give Herta Müller the background for the novel. That's why it's so filled with authentic facts and vivid description. Every little trick of survival is recalled. How he starved is given particular depth and resonance. With regard to the small cooking fires inmates would make to prepare meals in the evening, the narrator says:
When I had nothing to cook, the smoke snaked through my mouth. I drew in my tongue and chewed on nothing. I swallowed my spit with the evening smoke and thought about bratwurst. When I had nothing to cook, I walked close to the pots and pretended that I was on my way to brush my teeth at the well before going to bed. But by the time I put my toothbrush in my mouth I had already eaten twice. First I ate the yellow fire with the hunger of my eyes and then the smoke with the hunger of my mouth. As I ate, everything around me went still, all I could hear was the rumble of the coke ovens from the factory yard. The faster I tried to leave the well, the slower I went. I had to tear myself away from the little fires. In the rumble of the coke ovens I heard my stomach growling, the whole scene was filled with hunger. The skies sank back onto the earth, and I staggered back to the yellow light of the barrack.
Dear friends and supporters, a moment of silence...
The initial reports are excellent. This volume is extremely well-written, like its predecessor, but without the dense explication, the highflown metapThe initial reports are excellent. This volume is extremely well-written, like its predecessor, but without the dense explication, the highflown metaphors, etc. Result: it's much more readable. And one tends to move through it faster. Still reading......more
Comments on my first reading of The Zone of Interest. That a book merits rereading is to my mind high praise.
I never thought Martin Amis would attemptComments on my first reading of The Zone of Interest. That a book merits rereading is to my mind high praise.
I never thought Martin Amis would attempt an historical novel. But he has and it's quite a good one. I found the opening pages thrilling. My problem is not so much with the novel, as with the historical background that informs it. My problem is with historical novels in general, which I tend not to read. About the Holocaust, I've read extensively. So when I came across familiar facts in this novel I found I had little interest in plowing through them again. But I had to do so if I was going to get to the story of the characters, which is fresh and new. So the brilliance of the writing itself--I've always admired Martin Amis' work--was in this instance not enough to keep my interest aloft. My interest sagged and rose as I read. The goodreads star rating system has always been for me basically a pleasure meter. How much did the book transport me? How much did it take me out of myself and absorb me in its dream? In the case of The Zone of Interest I'm afraid the answer is, not much. I suppose I'm Shoah'd out. A special case. I wonder if this isn't really a novel for future generations, which might perhaps join Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen and a few other books as a concise introductory to the era's horrors. For it is, without question, masterfully composed.
Another thing: like most historical novels this one was written in the day and age in which it was written. Please look at the Afterword; as you can see, Amis had access to vast amounts of research and he has arranged events in a way that wouldn't necessarily have been foremost in the minds of those living at the time. I'm not talking about the simple chronology. I'm talking more about what was known at the time. This is what I dislike about historical novels generally. They're too informed about their own historical context. This, for me anyway, ruins suspension of disbelief and undermines the very foundation of the fiction. Now, all novels have an historical context, but not all novels are historical novels. Usually the historical moment is just part of the setting, for the historical novel history is the subject matter, too. I could run on about this, but you get the gist. You might argue: "Well, yes, but the novelist can't unlearn aspects of the history he or she writes about for purposes of giving the proper lopsided view," and I would agree. The historical novel has an epistemological conundrum at its heart.
A few things. First, I have read widely about Mao's Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward (70 million dead), Stalin's purges and programs of collA few things. First, I have read widely about Mao's Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward (70 million dead), Stalin's purges and programs of collectivization (20 to 50 million dead,) and Hitler's genocide (11 million dead). I am largely unshockable. However, the avarice and deceit of King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo (10 million dead) has been something of a revelation. I hereby enter his name in my Rogues Gallery roster. It is important that we remember what he perpetrated for his own personal gain. Adam Hochschild's book does an excellent job of registering these crimes in the collective memory. The book has been justly praised. Let me add my own.
Also, it turns out the first great unmasker of Leopold was an American, George Washington Williams. He was a lawyer, minister, popular author and activist. He wrote an open letter to Leopold that was published in the Times in 1890 and which might have saved millions had he been listened to. Williams was a man of considerable intellectual acumen and courage. Largely because he was black, however, he was ignored. I had always thought that great whistleblower was Roger Casement. And certainly Casement's key contribution is recounted here, as is that of the great popularizer of the Congo cause, E.D. Morel, but Williams' audacious early warning was a surprise to me. I hereby enter his name into the book of latter-day Cassandras, and suggest he be given greater emphasis in all relevant texts and courses....more
Luc Sante's wonderful Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York is in some ways a pendant piece to Up in the Old Hotel. Though Sante's vision is darkLuc Sante's wonderful Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York is in some ways a pendant piece to Up in the Old Hotel. Though Sante's vision is darker, and he has a keener eye for the con, it's as if both he and Mitchell were coming at the material from different angles. Sante is a cultural historian; Mitchell's focus by contrast is more on the individual. But both have a special forcus on the gritty demimonde of the Bowery in the late 19th century and, after its decline, marked by the death of Big Tim Sullivan in 1913 (See "A Sporting Man"), its move to new digs on lower Broadway. Here for instance is a quote that might be right out of Sante's Low Life:
At that time, in 1894, the Bowery was just beginning to go to seed; it was declining as a theatrical street, but its saloons, dance halls, dime museums, gambling rooms, and brothels were still thriving. In that year, in fact, according to a police census, there were eighty-nine drinking establishments on the street, and it is only a mile long." p. 128
The stories -- perhaps profiles is the better term -- are brilliantly written in a straightforward expository style, and often laugh-out-loud funny. "Lady Olga," for instance, is a profile of circus sideshow bearded lady Jane Barnell in her sixty-ninth year. "Professor Sea Gull" is about the inimitable Joe Gould, about whom Mitchell would later write a longer piece, "Joe Gould's Secret," also included here. Mitchell's summary of Gould's nine-million word treatise "An Oral History of Our Time" (unpublished) is fascinating and alone worth reading, yet the essay offers so much more.
In a many essays, it's as if Mitchell is simply taking testimony. "The Gypsy Women" is mostly a verbatim talk that was given to the author and two novice NYPD detectives by the longtime Commander of the Pickpocket and Confidence Squad. In "The Deaf-Mute Club" he relates a visit to self-same club where he exchanged long handwritten notes with the club's president, which are transcribed without interruption. In one essay we learn of the penniless drifter who wrote improvised checks on paper bags for many thousands to kind people who'd helped him; and the man who couldn't abide swearing and started the Anti-Profanity League in 1901.
Mitchell, like Whitman, celebrates the individual, and like the great poet he has a penchant for the catalog, which he uses to brilliant effect. His rhythms, moreover, his prosody, can be downright sonorous. He has a fantastic ear for demotic speech and the writing is jam-packed with vivid description, yet never overly freighted.
What's tremendously cool for me as a New Yorker is the sense of place I get from the essays. All the streets I've walked for so many years -- past McSorley's Ale House off Cooper Square, the old Police Headquarters on Centre St. and so on -- take on rich historical depth. I can see now how Mitchell's book will serve as a nice stepping stone to Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Burrows and Wallace, a doorstop that's been unread on my shelf for too long. Ah, the joys of reading....more