Gould nature essays

Stephen Jay Gould's essays remind us that science and the scientific method can be absorbing, arousing, and very human—-even when we're reading what he wrote about fossils or anti-semitism.

This new collection of seven of Gould's books has just been issued by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Gould (1941-2002) was a MacArthur Prize Fellow and a widely celebrated paleontologist and evolutionary theorist.

Choose any one of these books, any one of the essays originally written for a monthly column in Natural History magazine, and you'll understand how very educated and thoughtful Gould was. His writing is almost always clear, if occasionally convoluted. Unexpected insights abound.

From his final collection, I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History (containing 32 halftones and 24 line illustrations), I read "The Jew and the Jewstone." I learned that Johann Schroder, in the mid-1600s, in his widely used handbook of remedies, wrote of a healing salve.

There's an unusual aspect of this salve, according to Gould, who had heard of it many times before seeing the actual words in a 1677 edition of the book. You have to apply the salve to the weapon that caused the wound, as well as to the wound itself. "For healing required a sympathetic treatment, a rebalancing, a 'putting right' of both the injurer and the injuree."

Nonsense, in other words, by scientific standards.

Yet that tidbit reminded me of a seventh grader I knew years ago who briefly attended a school run by Scientologists. Whenever a child was hurt by bumping into a cabinet, say, she was required to touch the cabinet that had hurt her. They called it a "touch-back." It was intended as a symbolic reexperiencing of the injury that would assist its cure. It sounded too weird. Now I realize what a long pre-scientific history such "sympathetic" treatments have.


Gould continues in his essay to report on what he read in 17th century Schroder's book. Fossil sea urchin spines (jew stones, or Lapis judaicus) were not conceived of as being evidence of ancient life, but were assigned healing properties. Thus kidney-shaped fossils worked on kidney stones.

And finally, Gould tells us, he read Schroder's defense of medicine and doctors, including that they help fight the most potent earthly devil: the Jews. Jews who are allowed to kill Christians without a pang of conscience. You can tell who they are by their ugliness, among other giveaways.

Seeing this in black and white made it much harder for Gould, whose father arrived in this country at Ellis Island, to stretch his compassion for the older, unscientific ways of seeing the world.


One of the new reprints is not a collection of essays but a much fuller version of the presidential address Gould gave to a group of scientists in 2000. It's as imaginatively named as all of them: "The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap between Science and the Humanities."

I'll only quote one paragraph because it illustrates both his theme and his writing style, as well as being about creativity and flow. And most of it is parenthetical:

The commonalities of creative thinking, and the psychology of mental drive and excitement, seem to transcend the logical differences of subject or approach. (I would not try to distinguish the emotions of exaltation felt in singing a particularly moving passage in Bach's Passion settings from the excitement of solving a tough little puzzle in the systematics of Cerion [the land snail of my personal research], and saying to myself, "Oh, so that's how it goes!" Late in his life, a celebrated senior colleague stated to me, during a chance encounter on the New York subway of all places, that he continued to love and practice research with all his heart because its pleasures could only be liked to "continual orgasm.")

*Lots of links to interviews with Gould, quotations, and more at an unofficial archive here

Copyright (c) 2011 by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.

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