In today's increasingly environmentally conscious world, it seems no popular science writer's work is complete without a treatise on the frightening increase in annual extinctions and the corresponding decrease in bio diversity.
Recently, the increasing number of pleas for human respect for flora and fauna have drawn on deep emotions and the moral imperative of conservation efforts. But until now, Agassiz Professor of Geology Stephen lay Gould has remained peripheral to the conservation fray, scoffing at what he calls the " shibboleths of the movement" and the "Catharsis" of any description of ecological deterioration.
Eight little Piggies, Gould's newest book, is the sixth in his continuing series of essays collected from his monthly column in Natural History. With the book, Gould takes several timid (although timid to Gould is usually more than aggressive to most) steps toward discussing these vital issues.
Gould's reluctance to "emote" environmentally is still evident, from statements in his introduction and the fact that only the first three of the book's 31 essays are devoted explicitly to ecological destruction. He discusses mass extinctions in later essays, but they're usually of the "millions-of-years ago" variety, long before Homo sapiens overwhelmed the world.
Gould conveys the necessity of conservation, however, just as clearly as Band Professor of Science P.O. Wilson does in his recent Diversity of Life. Beginning with some real-life trouble in Tahiti, this message carries explicitly through Gould's first three essays, ending with a reflection on the loss of the limpets, a snail whose shell "looks like a Chinese hat of the old caricatures." Through Gould's superb interweaving of history and biology, the limpet becomes a poor pitiable and yet complex organism, with symbolic meaning for other endangered species.
Gould's message rings even truer in the rest of his essays, which inform and delight the reader with the quirky and unpredictable nature of evolution. Each organism is a treasure, worth studying for itself and for what it means about the greater picture.
At each step, Gould personally and intimately cajoles the reader, anticipating each next thought. "At this point, you might say..." is one his favorite turns of phrase. Despite his railings against Social Darwinism and sociobiology's attempts to connect human society and animal behavior. Gould sees all of history and literature as an elaborate metaphor liking our lives to the bizarre and complex world of evolutionary biology.
Gould's incredible mastery of the scientific and the literary realms makes him a rare gem in his field--in his world, he would be a rare fossil find. He can make science accessible, important and compelling all at once, while other writers struggle with any one of these tasks. Like the quirky and unpredictable sequence of evolution which Gould defends, his wacky and often random metaphors serve him well in the creation (evolution might state it better) of a unified set of essays.
Gould argues convincingly that traditional interpretation of Darwin and other scholars fall short of the true significance of these heroes of early biology. Familiar images of punctuated equilibrium, evolutionary contingency and the metaphorical Galton's polyhedron that on strains the evolution are all present in sterling form lot evidence, Gould draws on his extraordinary knowledge of biology, introducing the reader to an incredible array of fascinating facts, sometimes embarrassing in their context Describing a herring's gas expulsions out an orifice next to the anus, he gleefully calls them "herring farts."
The author exposes the reader to his own wonder with each of his personal science heroes, from Darwin to Halley. A "Careful reading," Gould suggests, gives a new lease on life to theories ridiculed or scorned by today's haughty and careless scholars. In a seeming reversal of his desire to combat the complacent and traditional nature of Darwinist thought, Gould even goes as far as to suggest we need a mythology of science.
There always exists an overlooked aspect to every scientist and theory, according to Gould. Edmund Halley, for example, didn't just gaze skyward. He actually suggested a possible method of measuring the Earth's age by comparing river salt levels. Though the theory is flawed. Gould praises Halley's early efforts at such an important task, as he is careful to honor each of the characters in the history of science he discusses.
For the "careful" reader, Eight Little Piggies offers an exciting glimpse into many facets of an evolutionary biologist's world. More importantly, the book will impart a healthy interest in why biodiversity is so essential. Gould puts in practice his belief that there is no "optimal use" of any anatomical feature, using odd historical and literary images to express a deeply personal love for his work.