The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History

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In his latest collection of essays, bestselling scientist Stephen Jay Gould once again offers his unmistakable perspective on natural history and the people who have tried to make sense of it. Gould is planning to bring down the curtain on his nearly thirty-year stint as a monthly essayist for Natural History magazine, the longest-running series of scientific essays in history. This, then, is the next-to-last essay collection from one of the most acclaimed and widely read scientists of our time. In this work of ...
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Overview

In his latest collection of essays, bestselling scientist Stephen Jay Gould once again offers his unmistakable perspective on natural history and the people who have tried to make sense of it. Gould is planning to bring down the curtain on his nearly thirty-year stint as a monthly essayist for Natural History magazine, the longest-running series of scientific essays in history. This, then, is the next-to-last essay collection from one of the most acclaimed and widely read scientists of our time. In this work of twenty-three essays, selected by Booklist as one of the top ten science and technology books of 2000, Gould covers topics as diverse as episodes in the birth of paleontology to lessons from Britain's four greatest Victorian naturalists. The Lying Stones of Marrakech presents the richness and fascination of the various lives that have fueled the enterprise of science and opened our eyes to a world of unexpected wonders.
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Editorial Reviews

KLIATT
In this wide-ranging, delightful, and often amusing selection, Stephen Jay Gould presents the next to last collection of essays culled from his monthly columns in Natural History magazine. These essays were to total 300 in all before Gould ended the series in January 2000. Written in the late '90s, these pieces, mostly about 20 pages each in length, are examples of the best in the genre of the personal essay. The reader gains scientific information, certainly, but more importantly, achieves an insight into the workings of a brilliant mind. Gould is a teacher with a message. While these essays were written separately over several years, they have a thread. Over and over, Gould gently admonishes his reader that "Extremes must usually be regarded as untenable, even dangerous places on complex and subtle continua." Repeatedly, he warns against the human tendency to oversimplify, to "favor simple kinds of explanation that flow in one direction..." but which rarely explain our intricate environment. These essays can, of course, be read separately, but the reader of the entire collection will be rewarded with a glimpse of the worldview of an eminent scholar. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students, and adults. 2000, Random House, Three Rivers Press, 372p. illus. index., $15.00. Ages 17 to adult. Reviewer: Patricia A. Moore; Brookline, MA , September 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 5)
Library Journal
Month after month, for nearly 30 years, Gould has written articulate, substantial, and provocative essays for Natural History magazine. With equal regularity, every two years his latest articles have been republished in anthology form. This new installment follows the standard, successful format. There is an integrative preface and six topical, interrelated sections: "Episodes in the Birth of Paleontology," "Present at the Creation," "Darwin's Century and Ours," "Six Little Pieces on the Meaning and Location of Excellence," "Science in Society," and "Evolution at All Scales." Throughout, Gould employs his familiar techniques of using biography to humanize science and relating episodes from the history of science to illuminate contemporary issues. This is the promised next-to-last collection in the series, which lends it a feeling of building toward finality. Gould's books are always popular in public libraries, and some are even cited in primary scientific literature, so this is a solid purchase for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/99.]--Gregg Sapp, Univ. of Miami Lib., Coral Gables, FL Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Brendan Kenneally
Gould's passionate commitment to precision and his sensitivity to ''the little wriggles of a million 'might have beens,' ''make The Lying Stones of Marrakech not just accessible but stimulating as well.
New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780609807552
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/17/2001
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 9.19 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Jay Jay Gould
Stephen Jay Gould was the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard University and Vincent Astor Visiting Professor of Biology at New York University. A MacArthur Prize Fellow, he received innumerable honors and awards and wrote many books, including Ontogeny and Phylogeny and Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (both from Harvard).

Biography

Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould was arguably the leading science writer for the contemporary literate popular audience. His explications of evolutionary theory and the history of science are peppered with oddball cultural and historical references, from Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak to Catherine the Great's middle name. But Gould insisted that his work wasn't dumbed-down for nonscientists.

"I sort of operate at one end of what's called popular science," he told a Salon interviewer. "Not because I don't appreciate the other end, I just wouldn't do it well, somehow. But the end I operate on really doesn't sacrifice any complexity -- except complexity of language, of course, complexity of jargon. But I like to think that my stuff is as conceptually complex as I would know how to write it for professional audiences."

In 1972, Gould and fellow paleontologist Niles Eldredge shook up the field of evolutionary theory with their idea of "punctuated equilibrium," which suggests that the evolution of a species is not gradual and continual, but marked by long periods of stasis and brief bursts of change. Over the next several decades, Gould would continue to develop his critique of evolutionary theory, questioning assumptions about evolutionary progress and provoking debates with the likes of evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, philosopher Daniel Dennett and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

From early on in his career, Gould was interested in reviving the scientific essay, in the tradition of Galileo and Darwin. Gould began writing a series of monthly essays for Natural History, the magazine of the American Museum of Natural History. Published as "This View of Life," the well-received essays addressed a broad range of topics in the biological and geological sciences. In his essays, Gould not only explained scientific facts for the lay reader, he critiqued the shortcomings of certain scientific viewpoints and the cultural biases of particular scientists.

Armed with a historical view of evolutionary theory, he tackled the problem of human intelligence testing in The Mismeasure of Man (1981). The book won a National Book Critics' Circle Award, while a collection of essays, The Panda's Thumb (1980), won the American Book Award. Together the books established Gould's presence as one of the country's most prominent science writers.

Gould's popularity continued to widen with the publication of such unlikely bestsellers as Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989), which challenged the notion that humans are the necessary endpoint of evolutionary history. "Not only does [Gould] always find something worth saying, he finds some of the most original ways of saying it," The New York Times said in its review of Bully for Brontosaurus (1993), another collection of essays.

In 1998, Gould was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and his description of that office could apply to his whole life's work. He pledged to "make people less scared of science so they won't see it as arcane, monolithic, and distant, but as something that is important to their lives." Stephen Jay Gould died in May of 2002 of cancer.

Good To Know

In a Mother Jones interview, Gould mentioned that he was teased as a child for his fascination with paleontology. The other kids called him "fossil face." Gould added, "The only time I ever got beat up was when I admitted to being a Yankee fan in Brooklyn. That was kind of dumb."

Gould was diagnosed in 1982 with abdominal mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer. In one of his most famous essays, "The Median Isn't the Message," he explained how statistics are often misinterpreted by nonscientists, and why the grim statistics on his own disease -- with a median mortality of eight months, at that time -- didn't deter him from believing he would live for many more years. "[D]eath is the ultimate enemy -- and I find nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light," he wrote. He died in May 2002 -- 20 years after his diagnosis.

Gould made a guest appearance as himself on The Simpsons in 1997, participating in a town debate over the authenticity of an "angel skeleton" found in Springfield.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Stephen Jay Gould
    1. Date of Birth:
      September 10, 1941
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Death:
      May 20, 2002
    2. Place of Death:
      Boston, Massachusetts

Read an Excerpt

In the fall of 1973, I received a call from Alan Ternes, editor of Natural History magazine. He asked me if I would like to write columns on a monthly basis, and he told me that folks actually get paid for such activities. (Until that day, I had published only in technical journals.) The idea intrigued me, and I said that I'd try three or four. Now, 290 monthly essays later (with never a deadline missed), I look only a little way forward to the last item of this extended series--to be written, as number 300 exactly, for the millennial issue of January 2001. One really should follow the honorable principle of quitting while still ahead, a rare form of dignity chosen by such admirable men as Michael Jordan and Joe DiMaggio, my personal hero and mentor from childhood. (Joe died, as I put this book together, full of years and in maximal style and grace, after setting one last record--for number of times in receiving last rites and then rallying.) Our millennial transition may represent an arbitrary imposition of human decisions upon nature's true cycles, but what grander symbol for calling a halt and moving on could possibly cross the path of a man's lifetime? This ninth volume of essays will therefore be the penultimate book in a series that shall close by honoring the same decimal preference lying behind our millennial transition.

If this series has finally found a distinctive voice, I have learned this mode of speech in the most gradual, accumulating, and largely unconscious manner--against my deepest personal beliefs in punctuational change and the uniquely directive power (despite an entirely accidental origin) of human reason in evolution. I suppose I had read a bit of Montaigne in English 101, and I surely could spell the word, but I had no inkling about the definitions and traditions of the essay as a literary genre when Alan Ternes called me cold on that fine autumn day.

I began the series with quite conventional notions about writing science for general consumption. I believed, as almost all scientists do (by passively imbibing a professional ethos, not by active thought or decision), that nature speaks directly to unprejudiced observers, and that accessible writing for nonscientists therefore required clarity, suppression of professional jargon, and an ability to convey the excitement of fascinating facts and interesting theories. If I supposed that I might bring something distinctive to previous efforts in this vein, I managed to formulate only two vague personal precepts: first, I would try to portray all subjects at the same conceptual depth that I would utilize in professional articles (that is, no dumbing down of ideas to accompany necessary clarification of language); second, I would use my humanistic and historical interests as a "user friendly" bridge to bring readers into the accessible world of science.

Over the years, however, this mere device (the humanistic "bridge") became an explicit centrality, a feature that I permitted myself to accept (and regard as a source of comfort and pride rather than an idiosyncrasy to downplay or even to hide) only when I finally realized that I had been writing essays, not mere columns, all along--and that nearly five hundred years of tradition had established and validated (indeed, had explicitly defined) the essay as a genre dedicated to personal musing and experience, used as a gracious entrée, or at least an intriguing hook, for discussion of general and universal issues. (Scientists are subtly trained to define the personal as a maximally dangerous snare of subjectivity and therefore to eschew the first person singular in favor of the passive voice in all technical writing. Some scientific editors will automatically blue-pencil the dreaded I at every raising of its ugly head. Therefore, "popular science writing" and "the literary essay" rank as an ultimately disparate, if not hostile, pairing of immiscible oil and water in our usual view--a convention that I now dream about fracturing as a preeminent goal for my literary and scientific life.)

I have tried, as these essays developed over the years, to expand my humanistic "take" upon science from a simple practical device (my original intention, insofar as I had any initial plan at all) into a genuine emulsifier that might fuse the literary essay and the popular scientific article into something distinctive, something that might transcend our parochial disciplinary divisions for the benefit of both domains (science, because honorable personal expression by competent writers can't ever hurt; and composition, because the thrill of nature's factuality should not be excluded from the realm of our literary efforts). At the very least, such an undertaking can augment the dimensionality of popular scientific articles--for we lose nothing of science's factual beauty and meaning, while we add the complexity of how we come to know (or fail to learn) to conventional accounts of what we think we know.

As this series developed, I experimented with many styles for adding this humanistic component about how we learned (or erred) to standard tales about what, in our best judgment, exists "out there" in the natural world--often only to demonstrate the indivisibility of these two accounts, and the necessary embeddedness of "objective" knowledge within worldviews shaped by social norms and psychological hopes. But so often, as both Dorothy and T. S. Eliot recognized in their different ways, traditional paths may work best and lead home (because they have truly withstood the test of time and have therefore been honed to our deep needs and best modes of learning, not because we fall under their sway for reasons of laziness or suppression).

Despite conscious efforts at avoidance, I find myself constantly drawn to biography--for absolutely nothing can match the richness and fascination of a person's life, in its wondrous mixture of pure gossip, miniaturized and personalized social history, psychological dynamics, and the development of central ideas that motivate careers and eventually move mountains. And try as I may to ground biography in various central themes, nothing can really substitute for the sweep and storytelling power of chronology. (I regard the Picasso Museum in Paris and the Turner Wing of the Tate Gallery in London as my two favorite art museums because each displays the work of a great creator in the strict chronological order of his life. I can then devise whatever alternative arrangement strikes my own fancy and sense of utility--but the arrow of time cannot be replaced or set aside; even our claims for invariance must seek constant features of style or subject through time's passage.)

So I have struggled, harder and more explicitly than for anything else in my life as a writer, to develop a distinctive and personal form of essay to treat great scientific issues in the context of biography--and to do so not by the factual chronology of a life's sorrows and accomplishments (a noble task requiring the amplitude of a full book), but rather by the intellectual synergy between a person and the controlling idea of his life. In this manner, when the conceit works, I can capture the essence of a scientist's greatest labor, including the major impediments and insights met and gathered along the way, while also laying bare (in the spare epitome demanded by strictures of the essay as a literary form of limited length) the heart of a key intellectual concept in the most interesting microcosm of a person's formulation and defense.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

Preface 1
I Episodes in the Birth of Paleontology: The Nature of Fossils and the History of the Earth
1. The Lying Stones of Marrakech 9
2. The Sharp-Eyed Lynx, Outfoxed by Nature 27
3. How the Vulva Stone Became a Brachiopod 53
II Present at the Creation: How France's Three Finest Scientists Established Natural History in an Age of Revolution
4. Inventing Natural History in Style 75
5. The Proof of Lavosier's Plates 91
6. A Tree Grows in Paris: Lamarck's Division of Worms and Revision of Nature 115
III Darwin's Century--and Ours: Lessons from Britain's Four Greatest Victorian Naturalists
7. Lyell's Pillars of Wisdom 147
8. A Sly Dullard Named Darwin: Recognizing the Multiple Facets of Genius 169
9. An Awful Terrible Dinosaurian Irony 183
10. Second-Guessing the Future 201
IV Six Little Pieces on the Meaning and Location of Excellence
Substrate and Accomplishment
11. Drink Deep, or Taste Not the Pierian Spring 221
12. Requiem Eternal 227
13. More Power to Him 231
De Mortuis When Truly Bonum
14. Bright Star Among Billions 237
15. The Glory of His Time and Ours 241
16. This Was a Man 245
V Science in Society
17. A Tale of Two Work Sites 251
18. The Internal Brand of the Scarlet W 269
19. Dolly's Fashion and Louis's Passion 287
20. Above All, Do No Harm 299
VI Evolution at all Scales
21. Of Embryos and Ancestors 317
22. The Paradox of the Visibly Irrelevant 333
23. Room of One's Own 347
Illustration Credits 357
Index 358
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