My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I recently unearthed some book reviews that I wrote when I was in Neurosciences graduate school at Stanford in the early 1990s. There I was the editor of a student newsletter called the “Neuron Free Press,” and we published book reviews about Neuroscience topics.
This newsletter was published while the internet was coming into its own, before blogs. The dead tree versions of these reviews that I found at the back of an old file cabinet may be the only copies still in existence. The books are no longer new but I think each one has retained its relevance and stood the test of time.
The first book covered is Bully for Brontosaurus, reviewed back in Autumn 1991 when its author, the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, was still alive and writing. I think it’s especially appropriate for Darwin Day.
Stephen Jay Gould has been writing monthly essays for Natural History magazine for over eighteen years, and he has gotten pretty good at it by now. His newest collection is the best one so far. While Gould has always been able to impress with the depth and breadth of his scientific knowledge, this collection contains more personal insight, humor, and humility than some of his previous work.
Gould makes no secret of his intellectual passions: baseball, the French Revolution, geology, science and scientists of the 19th century, dinosaurs, classical music, and evolutionary theory. Not every one of his readers shares these passions, of course (I, for one, have always been bored by baseball), but he has a gift for making his subjects come alive regardless of what he writes about. For example, one essay, “The Chain of Reason versus the Chain of Thumbs” deals with animal magnetism, a craze in the late 1780s. The German physician Franz Mesmer believed that a “magnetic fluid” pervaded the universe, uniting everything. When “flow” was blocked in people, disease could result. Mesmer claimed to have performed many cures by locating the magnetic poles on a sufferer’s body, and re-establishing flow by touching knees and fingers, and staring into the person’s (usually a woman’s) eyes.
The essay describes how the Royal Commission of Louis XVI in 1784 went about evaluating Mesmer’s claims, and the story is funny and surprising. Gould creates a picture of the famous scientists on the commission, which included Benjamin Franklin and Anton Lavoisier, sitting around one of Mesmer’s big vats of magnetic fluid, joined by a rope, each holding an iron rod, and “making from time to time, the chain of thumbs.” Everyone reads about Franklin flying a kite in a thunderstorm, but his participation in the chain of thumbs is less well documented and at least as interesting. The essay also explains that Dr. Mesmer’s name is where the word “mesmerize” comes from.
The book is full of historical tidbits like this, such as why keyboards are laid out with QWERTY on top, or why glowworms are evenly spaced on the ceiling of a grotto. It is also full of explanations and sympathetic characterizations of obscure scientific figures, as well as little-known stories about more famous ones. He devotes an entire essay to William Jennings Bryan, who attacked the teaching of evolution in schools in the Scopes trial in 1925. Gould is an ardent anti-fundamentalist, anti-“creation science” evolutionary biologist, and he admits he thinks Bryan’s position was “yahoo nonsense,” yet he is able to draw a sympathetic picture of Bryan, who believed that the philosophy of “Darwinism” (as Bryan mistakenly understood it) played a role in the rise of German militarism and capitalist exploitation, and thus should be suppressed.
Finally, I would like to add as a personal note, that I enjoyed one essay, “Bligh’s Bounty,” in particular because it had a section on my own field: the mammalian visual system. However, in that section, Gould makes a statement containing a factual error which should be clear to anyone who has taken introductory neuroanatomy. It didn’t change the basic conclusion or overall integrity of his essay, but did show that, in spite of a great deal of evidence to the contrary, Gould doesn’t know everything.