Terry's Reviews > Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin

Full House by Stephen Jay Gould
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's review
Sep 21, 11

bookshelves: science
Read from September 13 to 18, 2011

Why are there no 400 hitters in baseball?
Where have all the great composers gone?
How did Gould "beat the odds" regarding his cancer?
Does evolution produce a concept of progress?

These are central questions elegantly answered by Gould in Full House, an exploration of the phenomena that fall out of the variation found in complex systems. Gould shows how some properties of systems can create the illusion of progress and how this myth of progress taints our thinking about the natural world. Gould pushes the reader's conceptual understanding of things like distribution tails and skewness to a much more fundamental level to show how these basic properties can explain the nature of variation for instance regarding the apparent increasing complexity of life.

Gould presumes reasonably that life started with what will be some minimum state of complexity. The standard view is that life got increasingly more complex up until you reach primates but Gould contests this progress as just being a tail of the distribution of complexity. Most life, by quantity, by species count, or by sheer mass is still very much close to that minimum level of complexity as demonstrated by bacteria. If you were to use any standard measurement for quantity or variation we still live in the age of the bacteria but just happen to be the first self-conscious species.

I found his discussion of why there are no great classical composers anymore to also be compelling. It is not the case that the kind of musical genius required to be great is not existent, far from, but that there is a demand of novelty for musical greatness and that most accessible forms of novelty have been exhausted. There may be limited space for large enough stylistic variation for a new great composer to register.

As is often the case with Gould, the text is wordy and borders on the rhetorical. Few avenues of an argument go unexplored which you can take as either thoroughness or pedantry, but I found this book unusually interesting based on my love of statistics.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Adam I like everything but the fact you gave it three stars. If you have that much praise for it, what earns your five-star rating?!

Terry Five stars to me represents something that should be read by everyone. The subject matter isn't such that I think everyone would find the book accessible.

1 - Poor book, do not read.
2 - Acceptable, read only if you already like the topic a lot or the field or can deal with whatever flaws the text may have.
3 - Good entry in the field, read it if you like the subject.
4 - Excellent entry in the field, good even for those with little interest in the topic.
5 - Should be read by everyone.

Adam What are some five-star science books? That's a pretty slick rating scale.

Terry Here's my list sorted by rating: http://www.goodreads.com/review/list/...

If you can only pick one, I recommend a Short History of Nearly Everything.

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