Stephen Jay Gould
Dinosaur in a Haystack : Reflections in Natural History

This book took me almost as long to read (many months) as it did to come around to actually writing a review of it (a few months). I'd like to be able to blame that solely on the fact that I've been busy with other projects. But the truth is that I didn't find this book to be all that fantastic or engrossing. I know this book has been reviewed glowingly elsewhere, but I believe those reviews have more to do with Gould's reputation and legacy than with the actual content of this book.

Most of the essays seemed, to me, to be rather trivial in nature (no pun intended). They sounded, for the most part, like writings created by Gould because he had to meet a Natural History publication deadline and not because they are earth shattering or all that important. Indeed, I'd say that many are just ramblings intended to fill space with a witty first line and clever quote tacked on at the end but with little of interest in between.

Near the end, some get better. And some actually formed the seed for later books in Gould's career--books that I also found to be rather petty in content and hence didn't bother to read. Gould writes well. He also writes in a somewhat arrogant fashion. I think these essays probably read better, individually, as the beginnings of a magazine with a variety of authors to follow than back-to-back-to-back... in a compilation such as this.

Your opinion may vary. In any event, I don't really recommend this book despite the cool cover and famous author.

from the publisher:
Thirty-four essays of choice Gouldian prose in this latest collection of his monthly pieces for Natural History magazine. Age has not withered nor custom staled the sharp pen and opinions of our man in Cambridge. Indeed, in reading this collection as a whole, representing three years of work, one sees familiar themes emerge with renewed vigor and new evidence. These include the concept that evolution is neither linear nor progressive (man is not the be-all and end-all of life on earth); strong anticreationist and antieugenics stands; the idea that species remain stable over long periods, interrupted by relatively rapid times of change (Gould's and Niles Eldredge's "punctuated equilibria" theory); and the abrupt extinction of dinosaurs wrought by an asteroid collision 65 million years ago (the title essay).

As always, there is homage to and defense of Darwin, as well as essays that honor lesser-known figures, such as Victorian Mary Roberts (author of The Conchologist's Companion), or else little-known facts about the famous: Edgar Allen Poe's venture into popular science writing (with a little plagiarism thrown in), for example. Gould's essays on other literary figures are particularly well done. He provides a correction on the movie version of Frankenstein in a wonderful piece on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. And two essays, on Tennyson (author of the phrase "Nature, red in tooth and claw") and on Swift (who gave us the phrase "sweetness and light" in homage to the bee's contribution of honey and wax), are gems. Since Gould includes autobiographical pieces as well, we are treated to essays on his beloved snails and to the wonderful world of taxonomy and systematics. No better proof can be offered of the importance of Gould's kind of biology than this collection itself.

Table of Contents
Come Seven
1. Happy Thoughts on a Sunny Day in New York City
2. Dousing Diminutive Dennis's Debate (or DDDD = 2000)
3. The Celestial Mechanic and the Earthly Naturalist
4. The Late Birth of a Flat Earth
5. The Monster's Human Nature
6. The Tooth and Claw Centennial
7. Sweetness and Light
8. In the Mind of the Beholder
9. Of Tongue Worms, Velvet Worms, and Water Bears
10. Cordelia's Dilemma
11. Lucy on the Earth in Stasis
12. Dinosaur in a Haystack
13. Jove's Thunderbolts
14. Poe's Greatest Hit
15. The Invisible Woman
16. Left Snails and Right Minds
17. Dinomania
18. Cabinet Museums: Alive, Alive, O!
19. Evolution by Walking
20. The Razumovsky Duet
21. Four Antelopes of the Apocalypse
22. Does the Stoneless Plum Instruct the Thinking Reed?
23. The Smoking Gun of Eugenics
24. The Most Unkindest Cut of All
25. Can We Complete Darwin's Revolution?
26. A Humongous Fungus Among Us
27. Speaking of Snails and Scales
28. Hooking Leviathan by Its Past
29. A Special Fondness for Beetles
30. If Kings Can Be Hermits, Then We Are All Monkeys' Uncles
31. Magnolias from Moscow
32. The First Unmasking of Nature
33. Ordering Nature by Budding and Full-Breasted Sexuality
34. Four Metaphors in Three Generations