Book Review: Ever Since Darwin

Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould

I’ve been reviewing Isaac Asimov’s F&SF science essay collections for a while, and for a change of pace (and because I recently really enjoyed Full House) I’m giving the science essays of Stephen Jay Gould a whirl. They’re taken from Gould’s column “This View of Life” from the magazine Natural History, for which he wrote for nearly 30 years. They make a nice complement to Asimov’s essays, which often touch on physics, chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, and the history of science whereas Gould focuses on evolution and evolutionary history, paleontology, geology,  allometry, and the attendant history of biological sciences. There were ten of these collections total, of which Ever Since Darwin is the first, written between 1973-1977.

There are 33 essays divided up into 8 sections: on Darwin himself, human evolution, case studies of “odd” evolution behaviour (odd to us humans anyway), the exploration of patterns in the history of life (where evidence is found more for punctuated extreme events rather than “stately progress”), the history of Earth, size and shape across different scales, the history of evolutionary thought, and finally issues dealing with human nature and whether it is or to what extent it is biologically determined.

I quite enjoyed Ever Since Darwin and will be reading and review the other NH collections in the future. Gould makes a point of saying that he would write no differently if he were writing for a professional audience or a lay audience and I believe it shows. The writing is intelligent without being obfuscated, simple without being simplistic. It also includes a great line in the prologue: “Evolution is purposeless, nonprogressive, and materialistic.” And that’s why it rocks.

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