Book Review: The Panda’s Thumb

The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History
by Stephen Jay Gould

This is the second collection of essays by Stephen Jay Gould taken from his “This View of Life” column in the magazine Natural History, following Every Since Darwin. These essays date from the late 1970s, and differ only in some light editing and the addition of a few postscripts.

There are 31 essays or chapters, grouped in to eight sections: on how imperfections in the “design” of animals is evidence for evolution, Darwinian theory and adaptation (including a bit which for me was quite astounding about the male Acarophenax tribolii mite which dies before it is born), human evolution with particular focus on neoteny or the retention in adulthood of the juvenile morphological traits of our ancestors, a rather disheartening section on the history of the use of science to further racism and misogyny, the pace of evolutionary change and the debate between gradualism and punctuated equilibrium, two sections on the peculiarities of organisms with a few chapters on dinosaurs, and the final section the scaling of size and time (including one chapter on the number of heartbeats in an animal’s lifetime and the fact that humans are weirdly long-lived, which is highly similar to a previous Asimov essay I read).

With regards to both these and Asimov’s essay collections, I don’t think the point should be to go out and buy some volume to read one particular chapter. The joy is rather in having a smorgasbord of short expositions on a wide variety of topics that you might not previously encountered. For bite-sized (I can safely read a chapter on my ~20 minute bus commute in the morning) pieces with a focus on evolutionary biology, paleontology, and the history of science I highly recommend Gould.

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