Review of Stephen Jay Gould’s I Have Landed
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/17/06


  In the five years that Cosmoetica has been online one of the most popular, lauded, and requested essays is my elegy for biologist Stephen Jay Gould, posted 6/1/02, called Peaches, Tarpaper, & Stephen Jay Gould. It has been so popular due to a) its subject matter and b) the depth of the writing. I have been a subscriber to Natural History magazine for over twenty years and thus had read many of these essays in his This View Of Life series in their original format of that magazine. Gould was not only a great writer of science, but a tireless defender of science and rationalism. His resurrection of the science essay as a popular art form will probably be his greatest legacy. While his prose was not as polished as Loren Eiseley’s (by comparison his has a dearth of true poetry and a surfeit of such terms as maximal, contingent, magisterial, and canonical), the man from whom he picked up the torch of science essayry from, he was, along with astronomer Carl Sagan (who died six years earlier than Gould), perhaps America’s greatest popularizer of science and learning. Yes, he had faults. His almost comical misinterpretation of the fossils found in the Burgess Shale, in his 1989 book Wonderful Life (one of his few published books that was not a collection of previously published essays), was totally devastated by Simon Conway Morris’s 1998 book The Crucible Of Creation. He also denied that there were any trends in evolution when arguing against linearity or determinism, an addendum which kyboshed an otherwise valid point. And, despite his defense and hagiography of Charles Darwin’s life, all the while undermining Darwinism’s mechanism with his own ideas of the theory of Punctuated Equilibrium (developed with Niles Eldredge), Gould was correctly seen by rivals such as Richard Dawkins as often overstating his ideas about evolution, and not taking seriously enough the threat to science and rationalism posed by the troglodytic mindset of Creationists and their ilk. To his credit, in this book’s preface, Gould admits his occasional faux pas: ‘Although I have frequently advanced wrong, or even stupid, arguments, at least I have never been lazy.’

  Yet, despite such minor flaws, there is no doubting that Gould will go down in the history of his field as a major voice, and even more as a popular educator. A few weeks back I came across a brand new copy of his last published work, I Have Landed, published just weeks before his death in mid-2002, at the age of sixty. It was the U.K. version of the book, and, as usual, it’s an excellent read, much as many of his other books, such as Bully For Brontosaurus and The Mismeasure Of Man, have been. It consists of thirty-one essays, including the last published essays in his This View Of Life series, which reached an even three hundred when he ended them, after twenty-five years, in 2001. It’s one of a number of numerical synchronicities he expounds on in the book. The major one being that the title of his final book comes from a notation in his Hungarian immigrant grandfather’s journals as he arrived at Ellis Island. He wrote, ‘I have landed.’ on September 11th, 1901- a century, to the day, before the tragedy that still looms large over our times. Gould describes the journal as ‘'the most eerie coincidence that I have ever viscerally experienced.’

  In fact, a goodly number of the pieces are about that tragedy, in the last section of the book, and from sources other than Natural History, such as Time, and Science. Gould states repeatedly that the now infamous 9/11 is a day of American death not seen since the worst battles of the Civil War. At times, the pieces can reek a bit of saccharine, due probably to the man’s own impending death, such as when he claims, ‘The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people,’ or that ‘Ordinary kindness trumps paroxysmal evil by at least a million events to one. It is a central aspect of our being as a species.’ I tend to believe that bit of hyperbole reflects Gould’s hopes for the species, rather than the reality, but it sums up many of his biggest critics’ worst claims of the man, such as his claiming that religion and science do not conflict, when, in fact, they fundamentally do. Gould famously has proposed, in several of his books, the principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), in which he divides science and religion into two magisteria (realms of authority) that do not overlap- science explaining the hows of the universe while religion tackling the whys. As he frames it in one of this book’s essays:


  Aesthetic and moral truths, as human concepts, must be shaped in human terms, not ‘discovered’ in nature. We must formulate these answers for ourselves and then approach nature as a partner who can answer other kinds of questions for us- questions about the factual state of the universe, not about the meaning of life. If we grant nature the independence of her domain- her answers unframed in human terms- then we can grasp her exquisite beauty in a free and humble way. For then we become liberated to approach nature without the burden of our inappropriate and impossible quest for moral messages to assuage our hopes and fears. We can pay our proper respect to nature’s independence and read her own ways as beauty or inspiration in our different terms.


  What Gould never learned, or did but conveniently chose to ignore, was that religion is, by its very nature, a belief system designed to divorce mankind from its senses and a true understanding of reality (therefore, by definition, psychotic), whereas science aims to weld mankind to the real. They are unequivocally, inevitably, and eternally antagonistic. They are not non-overlapping. They overlap every bit as much as science and art do, but without the congruence, for art is discovery in service to creativity, while science is creativity in service to discovery.

  Fortunately, despite the remanant gasps of millennialism that have produced the Fundamentalist nonsense that has propelled Christianity and Islam into war and benighted many people in the American heartland, science has been getting the better of religion for a long time now, and there is no end in sight. Not only that, but, as he convincingly argues in the first and titular essay of the book, science is even more awe-inspiring than any religion or mythos could ever be:


  As a young child, thinking as big as big can be and getting absolutely nowhere for the effort, I would often lie awake at night, pondering the mysteries of infinity and eternity—and feeling pure awe (in an inchoate, but intense, boyish way) at my utter inability to comprehend. How could time begin? For even if a God created matter at a definite moment, then who made God? An eternity of spirit seemed just as incomprehensible as a temporal sequence of matter with no beginning. And how could space end? For even if a group of intrepid astronauts encountered a brick wall at the end of the universe, what lay beyond the wall? An infinity of wall seemed just as inconceivable as a never-ending extension of stars and galaxies….When we consider the magnitude and complexity of the circumstances required to sustain this continuity [of life- Dan] for so long, and without exception or forgiveness in each of so many components—well, I may be a rationalist at heart, but if anything in the natural world merits a designation as "awesome," I nominate the continuity of the tree of life for 3.5 billion years. The earth experienced severe ice ages, but never froze completely, not for a single day. Life fluctuated through episodes of global extinction, but never crossed the zero line, not for one millisecond. DNA has been working all this time, without an hour of vacation or even a moment of pause to remember the extinct brethren of a billion dead branches shed from an evergrowing tree of life.


  Gould acknowledges that in his essays, whether he’s flaying Creationists in Kansas, extolling Darwin yet again, writing of Vladimir Nabokov’s career in lepidoptery equaling and enhancing his career in literature (despite claims in the other direction), feathered dinosaurs, syphilis, and biological diversity. The essays are broken into eight parts. The first is a single essay, his tale of his grandpa, Papa Joe. The second deals with connections in the sciences, the third with leading figures in evolutionary science, and the fourth with the ‘Paleontology of Ideas’. Part five sees him in defense of evolution against Creationists- whom he calls the ‘Munchkins of Kansas’. Parts six and seven deal directly with evolutionary science, and the eighth part with 9/11. Through all of these pieces, though, there is an underlying antipathy towards ignorance, and racism in particular. In 1981 Gould laid out one of the best scientific cases against racism ever published, the much lauded The Mismeasure Of Man, and in the mid-1990s revised and updated it when the pseudo-scientific tome, The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, and funded by racist groups, trotted out long discredited beliefs in what became a shocking 1994 bestseller, the pseudo-scientific equivalent for evolution to what Whitley Strieber’s Communion was for astronomy. Gould demolished the hucksters by showing how the duo omitted inconvenient facts and purposely distorted statistics to support their noxious conclusions. As he states in this book, that idea is simply untenable:


  Since genetic diversity roughly correlates with time available for evolutionary change, genetic variety among Africans alone exceeds the sum total of genetic diversity for everyone else in the rest of the world combined! How, therefore, can we lump ‘African blacks’ together as a single group, and imbue them with traits either favorable or unfavorable, when they represent more evolutionary space and more genetic variation than we find in all non-African people in all the rest of the world?


  In a sense, this book, along with his monumental tome, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory- a systematic analysis of how Darwinian theory has shaped, and been shaped, by biological, paleontological, and genetic research- are fitting capstones to Gould’s career. These essays, in toto, may not have taken the quarter century’s worth of time to amass as his magnum opus, but Gould was never afraid to personalize science, nor his writing. His essays are an art form, and he was one of the finest published prose stylists in America upon his death. And it’s not as if the essays, themselves, were ‘mere’ popular science. Many of them included original research and could have easily been formatted for peer reviewed research journals, but Gould eschewed much of the snobbery, footnoting, polysyllabism, and arid, styleless writing of those venues, as he states in the book’s preface. It is the reason why he was reviled in many scientific circles and also so popular with the layety.

  As he might have argued, re: his Nabokov point on the Russian writer’s science career, the opposite was true of Gould- he was a great ‘writer’ first, and possibly a great scientist second. As he states in his Nabokov essay, No Science Without Fancy, No Art Without Facts, quoting the Russian: ‘I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is.’ The same might be said of Gould’s essays’ intellectual and literary merits. My only literary quarrel with him was a penchant for quoting and choosing epigraphs from too many mediocre poems and poets. Just because it may directly reference a point is no reason to ward poor writing any place of honor at the head of a piece of literature- even if a ‘mere’ science essay. And my quotes about the word mere are facetious, for, as he paraphrases Alexander von Humboldt in the essay, Art Meets Science In The Heart Of The Andes, which follows Humboldt, Darwin, and the great American landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church in their great year of 1859, ‘great works of science condemn themselves to oblivion as they open floodgates to reforming knowledge, while classics of literature can never lose relevance….’ Gould died with his feet on two differing boats, but I suspect long after the ship of his scientific accomplishment has slipped over the horizon, his literary stylings will still be steaming about the same waters that the likes of Loren Eiseley and Barry Lopez do. One could do worse. Far too many have.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]

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