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Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  1,857 ratings  ·  101 reviews
The human mind has a trusty device for simplifying a complex world: reduce to averages and identify trends. Although valuable, the risk is that we ignore variations and end up with a skewed view of reality. In evolutionary terms, the result is a view in which humans are the inevitable pinnacle of evolutionary progress, instead of, as Stephen Jay Gould patiently argues, "a ...more
Paperback, 256 pages
Published September 16th 1997 by Three Rivers Press (CA) (first published 1996)
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Jul 07, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: evolution, science
Dawkins once criticised Gould for being too good a writer. Now, there's a criticism you don't read every day.

This is a stunning book. In it Gould discusses Plato's forms, his fight with cancer and his explanation of evolution as not being about increasing complexity. Prepare to have your fundamental assumptions about evolution shaken to the core.

I love this man's writing - over the years he taught me more about the world than just about anyone else I've ever read. In fact, if there was anyone I
Oct 30, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Everyone interested in Evolutionary Biology
Recommended to Karl-O by: Trevor
The ideas outlined in this book can easily get a 5-star rating. My understanding of evolution after reading it is entirely different from what it was before doing so. Gould shattered some old concepts and replaced them with powerful and concrete ideas that helped me appreciate life even more so (especially after knowing how improbable our own existence is). There is indeed "grandeur in this view of life".

I deducted one star because of the part about baseball, which was too painful to read for a
Feb 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
If you think, like a lot of people do, that evolution is a progressive process that moves towards complexity (whatever that means), and, even worse, if you’re a member of a solipsistic species called Homo sapiens who think that they’re the goal and the pinnacle of evolution, you need to read this book. Gould shows that progress is not only NOT the goal of evolution; it’s not even a general trend. The book may also help you with answering another one of the dumb questions asked by the ...more
Cassandra Kay Silva
Jul 25, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
How do I say this properly. Gould is brilliant, and a wonderful writer for starters. I also don't think his approach was wrong with this one. I thought the idea of hitting it out with statistics was a good one. But please too much baseball! If I buy a book referenced under science I want to read more science. I think he either should have lengthened the book to compensate on the science end of it or shortened the baseball reference considerably. I mean really how many pages were really necessary ...more
Nicholas Whyte
Aug 06, 2011 rated it liked it

In this book, Gould appeals to us to consider the full range of complexity in systems, rather than concentrating on the outliers. His overall point is that while human beings may be particularly complex life forms, that doesn't in itself make us the destined end-point of evolution, which will quite naturally increase the number of more complex organisms because all in all they are not as likely to become less complex.

He bolsters this argument with a rather
Jun 30, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
A good book with a lot of valuable information. I think that Gould goes on far longer than necessary to make his point, but it's understandable since it goes against traditional thinking, and I imagine he's had to fight quite a bit to promote this concept at all.
Andrew Breslin
May 18, 2014 rated it liked it
Well said, Professor Gould! No, really, very well said indeed. Almost perfect, really. No need to repeat it, I got the idea the first time and . . . well now you’ve gone and said it again in a slightly different way, which makes me wonder if you think I’m some sort of dimwit who needs you to draw me a picture. Oh look, now there’s a picture . . .

That’s my only complaint about this otherwise remarkably entertaining and stimulating book, which lucidly expresses some fascinating ideas that will
Chad Bearden
Nov 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: popular-science
Stephen Jay Gould is a skeptic's skeptic. Most of his longer form books (as opposed to his wonderful essay collections) deal with some long-held belief in scientific or societal thinking, and then using sometimes tedious statistical analysis to show how said belief is wrong. What's not to love about a man who made a hobby out of trying to break various paradigms of thought?

Sure, he can get a little bit repetitive as he states and restates his thesis and gives detailed re-accounts of points he
Apr 28, 2008 rated it it was ok
In the prologue Gould promises that this is a short book. It is not short enough. All the arguments and evidence could have been thoroughly covered in a few pages. The book is full of repetition and harping, harping, harping on the same thing. It should have been an article, not a book. But he's right, and I suppose a book reaches a wider and more lay audience than an article. Still, I could have used less baseball and lot less patting himself on the back.
Heather Browning
Probably not one for those without an interest in statistical distributions, but I found it an interesting analysis of the way in which our perception of some effects can mask their true nature - in particular with reference to the idea that evolution drives towards greater complexity. The ideas seem obvious once explained but do run counter to some 'accepted wisdom'
Dec 11, 2007 added it
in college.

its cool -- stephen jay gould is a good scientist to know.

he breaks down how people misunderstand the science of evolution.

its not about this straight line from fish, to frogs, to dinosaurs, to ice, to humans.

its this huge bush.

a full house.

and the beauty lies in its fullness.

not in its flower.

we will wither and fade.
Feb 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Did not totally agree with the baseball findings.
Dec 15, 2011 rated it did not like it
I loved Gould's book on the Burgess Shale. But this book arguing for a materialist view of evolution where random chance produces the marvelous variety of life we know, just didn't hold water for me.

I have been a science buff since childhood, and have read all kinds of science across the board. For me this was not science, it was a biased scientist putting forth an agenda based on a weak thesis and a weak argument.

I am not some sort of Christian "intelligent designer" (read "creationist"), but I
Sep 21, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
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
Jun 04, 2008 rated it it was amazing
this is a wonderful book. gould examines the ways in which evolutionary theory has been distorted in order to serve humankind's tendency to apotheosize ourselves as the pinnacle of the process of life and nature. debunking ourselves and looking at the bigger picture (the full house), gould reveals an unbiased and engaging interpretation of the evidence. evolution is about variation occuring in the only direction open to it (that of complexity) and adaptation to local changing environment. ...more
James Dixson
Jan 20, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This was (among) the first books by SJG that were a collection of his articles from Natural History magazine. SJG was the co-author of the concept of "punctuated equilibrium", a kind of refactoring of the basic concept of natural selection first proposed by Darwin, kind of a General Relativity to Newtons 3rd law of motion.

This book is written not towards biologist but lay-folk. SJG is very good at explaining statistics and how the use of statistics is important to the study of evolutionary
Roberto Rigolin F Lopes
Gould bets his ‘full house’ against our biased view of natural evolution. Watch out because he is a damn good player. He builds his arguments in such a convincing way making deep thinking not just palatable but exciting and, more importantly, reusable. The whole thing starts revisiting basic statistics concepts using baseball numbers. To ended up with an elegant argument that evolution doesn’t mean increase in complexity. Well, it may feel like a punch in the face since we have been living the ...more
Braden Canfield
May 31, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Interesting explanation of how Darwin's theory of evolution accounts for the "full house" of diversity on planet earth without having any tendency towards directionality or progress. Gould has the gift of making difficult subjects accessible to the average reader. In this case, he uses an analysis of baseball statistics and the curious disappearance of the 400 batting average as a way to explain the bell curve. He then uses a similar statistical analysis of evolution to explain how humans are a ...more
Jack Burnett
Sep 16, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites
Gould's ideas evolved from the early 80s till he death early this millenium, and this book is situated on his time line in the right place to probably be called his best. Wonderful Life was great, but where that sometimes was strident, or dismissive, or just plain had different ideas in it, honestly held at the time, Full House is an opus to WHY life is wonderful: not because of complexity, but because of variety. It's written more confidently, more empathically, and more accessibly. A fitting ...more
May 27, 2011 rated it liked it
Always interesting musing from the great paleontologist and evolutionary biologist so sadly taken from us too soon. Topics range widely from why there are no more 400 hitters in baseball to SJG's assertion that we are not living in the "age of mammals", we are living in the "age of bacteria."
Written for a general audience but will probably appeal most to persons with technical training who don't hold with Mark Twain's assertion that "there are lies, damn lies, and statistics."
Nov 15, 2008 rated it really liked it
Gould's logic is simple and precise. His analogy of baseball and evolution is great. My overall take home point: the human body has physical limitations. In order to get beyond those boundaries - which are nebulous - our athletes sometimes cheat. See baseball and cycling for the most telling examples of this.
Mar 25, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This was the philosophy book I meant to claim finished, for Gould alienated me by the prevalence of alien analogies - not only to poker (which I'm only vaguely aware of how to play) but to baseball. Several chapters he went on about .400 hitting averages, and I don't even know.
Dec 25, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Well argued logic with plenty of examples in ecology and paleontology about why variety really is the spice of life. Good follow up to Wonderful Life and reassessment of assumptions we make about Darwinism.
Aug 18, 2010 rated it really liked it
An expansive book, even as an adult I know this pushed my "readers' level." Its not a book to be hurried through with complex ideas and complex language but definitely a book that makes you think, that makes you enjoy the process of getting through a book.
Derrick Mcvicker
Jul 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing
One of my favorite non-fiction books
Jul 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Started a little slow, but got rolling after the first chapter. Simplifies what evolution really is, and uses baseball to help connect the dots. Really enjoyed it.
Jan 08, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Gould is pissed that Creationism is taken seriously and he is Darwin's great defender (next to Huxley).
Jun 14, 2010 rated it really liked it
Always thought provoking and interesting as Gould's essays are, this book was a delight.
Christopher Kvaal
Jan 05, 2010 rated it really liked it
Explains more than you would like to admit.
Dave Russell
Feb 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Such is the talent of Gould as a writer and thinker that even though a quarter of this book is about baseball, I found it compelling and enlightening nonetheless.
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Stephen Jay Gould was a prominent American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation. Gould spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Most of Gould's empirical research was on land snails. Gould
“We reveal ourselves in the metaphors we choose for depicting the cosmos in miniature.” 5 likes
“In Darwins post-platonische werelds is de variatie de fundamentele werkelijkheid en veranderen berekende gemiddelden in abstracties. We blijven echter de voorkeur geven aan het oudere en tegengestelde standpunt: we zien variatie nog steeds als een massa onlogische toevalligheden, die hoofdzakelijk van waarde is omdat zo'n spreiding te gebruiken is voor de berekening van een gemiddelde, hetgeen we dan beschouwen als iets wat een essentie nog het best benadert.” 1 likes
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