Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History

Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History

"Provocative and delightfully discursive essays on natural history. . . . Gould is the Stan Musial of essay writing. He can work himself into a corkscrew of ideas and improbable allusions paragraph after paragraph and then, uncoiling, hit it with such power that his fans know they are experiencing the game of essay writing at its best."--John Noble Wilford, New York Times...

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Title:Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History
Author:Stephen Jay Gould
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Edition Language:English

Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History Reviews

  • Mike

    With essays like Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples, you can enjoy science while also being amused by his sense of humor. Great writing makes the natural world come alive. What fun.

  • Andy

    Definitely a favorite author. Great historical perspective on a wide variety of topics ranging from history of science (including current-ish science education) to more topical stories and ties them together seemlessly. The essays are good for people who have curious minds, not just of interest to scientists. And of course probably left over since childhood, topics dealing with dinosaurs that give information always entertain me.

  • Kevin

    Gould's essays on evolution and natural history inform the reader, for sure, but as importantly, they prompt the reader to question our conventional wisdom on not only biology, but a whole host of matters. He challenges the assumptions of his colleagues, he questions both the religious and the irreligious, he examines the ongoing conflicts between evolutionists and creationists -- all in an engaging, funny and personal manner. He talks about his experience with cancer (which sadly eventually got

    Gould's essays on evolution and natural history inform the reader, for sure, but as importantly, they prompt the reader to question our conventional wisdom on not only biology, but a whole host of matters. He challenges the assumptions of his colleagues, he questions both the religious and the irreligious, he examines the ongoing conflicts between evolutionists and creationists -- all in an engaging, funny and personal manner. He talks about his experience with cancer (which sadly eventually got him) and his love of baseball, ties together disparate bits of human history to arrive at intriguing observations on causality, chance, and human knowledge. He never lets us forget that ideology can aid us as well as blind us, and that the tools of science are the best we have to learn about our world, so long as we don't mistake the map for the road.

  • Karen

    This review was written in September 1991, not long after the book's publication:

    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.

    Go

    This review was written in September 1991, not long after the book's publication:

    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*.

  • Alexander Miles

    I hadn't read such a large (511 pages large) collection of essays by a single author before; it proved to be a unique experience. Being a collection of 35 (mostly) independent essays makes it particularly good for brief reading sessions, where you get a complete fully-formed message in just 10-20 pages. Gould covers a surprisingly large gamut of topics, some familiar to me, others totally alien, but all with a consistent approach. Gould starts with some narrative, seemingly unrelated to the topi

    I hadn't read such a large (511 pages large) collection of essays by a single author before; it proved to be a unique experience. Being a collection of 35 (mostly) independent essays makes it particularly good for brief reading sessions, where you get a complete fully-formed message in just 10-20 pages. Gould covers a surprisingly large gamut of topics, some familiar to me, others totally alien, but all with a consistent approach. Gould starts with some narrative, seemingly unrelated to the topic of the essay, and through a few acrobatic twists and turns he cleanly links it to the topic, develops his arguments and provides more details, before closing with an overview and quip or two. They don't all follow that precise formula, but by the time I got to the final few essays, I'd anticipated the structure. None of that is to say the essays are bad; I thoroughly enjoyed quite a few of them, and those that I didn't particularly like were short enough to not drag. I was most enthralled by the essays on nature of science, how it interacts with philosophy, history, and religion. As a professional scientist (though not working in natural history), I don't get to spend much time day-to-day considering these more lofty questions concern the fundamentals of science, so it was a particular pleasure following SJG on his explorations here.

    I'll admit, for some reason I'd assumed that this was a very recent publication. It's only after getting through 90% of it that I realized it was published in 1991, and the author had died in 2002. I suppose that's excusable as the subject material of the vast majority of the essays is timeless. I'd recommend this book to scientists, students, as well as to casual lovers of natural history. If you'd prefer a small taste before diving in, many of SJG's essays are available online for those on the fence; this collection includes, at least by his judgement, the best of them.

  • William2

    Stephen Jay Gould was adept at reviewing scientific missteps and errors and building telling lessons from them. His essays are highly discursive, often taking twists and turns through little known bits of history and popular culture, as a means of explicating complex concepts. He was a brilliant man and one of those writers--like neurologist Oliver Sacks, say, or biologist E.O. Wilson--who could take abstruse subject matter and make it intelligible to the general reader. Though, it should be not

    Stephen Jay Gould was adept at reviewing scientific missteps and errors and building telling lessons from them. His essays are highly discursive, often taking twists and turns through little known bits of history and popular culture, as a means of explicating complex concepts. He was a brilliant man and one of those writers--like neurologist Oliver Sacks, say, or biologist E.O. Wilson--who could take abstruse subject matter and make it intelligible to the general reader. Though, it should be noted, no one's style was quite so freewheeling and idiosyncratic as Gould's.

    A few favorite essays include:

    "The Panda's Thumb of Technology" In which Gould illustrates the evolutionary principles of contingency and incumbency by way of a history of the QWERTY keyboard. This is certainly among the volume's quirkiest and most brilliant essays.

    In "Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples" he discusses how male nipples are homologues of female nipples and remnants of embryology, just as the female clitoris is a homologue of the male penis. Dr. Freud's absurd theory of vaginal orgasm and the unfortunate suffering it caused countless women during the mid-20th century is discussed.

    "To Be A Platypus" reviews the immense puzzle this monotreme presented to 20th-century scientists because of its melange of seemingly contradictory characteristics: large brain and inner ear like mammals, egg laying like reptiles, duckbill like the eponymous wildfowl, etc. Because of its paradoxical nature, the platypus was viewed for a long time as a primitive outlier that had never really caught up with the high and mighty mammals. Gould shows not only why this isn't so, but why the creature is, as he puts it, "one honey of an adaptation."

    The section titled Intellectual Biography I found especially interesting.

    In "Kropotkin Was No Crackpot" Gould rehabilitates that fin de siècle Russian anarchist's much maligned reputation. Petr Kropotkin (see

    ) believed cooperation was more responsible for the perpetuation of species than violent struggle, a concept far more popular in the West. Many Russian evolutionists tended to agree. Why? Was it just their collectivist, socialist culture? In part, yes, but it also turns out that the concept of exploding populations, which Darwin learned in the teeming tropics (see

    ), was conceptually almost impossible for Russians to grasp, living as they did in a harsh and underpopulated land. At the center of the essay is the question of cultural biases in science, an area in which Gould excelled as a writer and a teacher. Fascinating.

    Feed your inner nerd . . . read this book.

  • Caroline

    I read the first half of this book about 10 years ago, and went back a few days ago to read the rest. Why the break? It was a good read....I have no idea why I came to a halt.

    Having finished the book I went back and looked at some of the earlier essays - Bully For Brontosaurus....a wonderful discussion about the rules governing how zoologists name animals. These rules are laid out in the 'International Code of Zoological Nomenclature' and the 1985 edition runs to 338 pages. That is a

    I read the first half of this book about 10 years ago, and went back a few days ago to read the rest. Why the break? It was a good read....I have no idea why I came to a halt.

    Having finished the book I went back and looked at some of the earlier essays - Bully For Brontosaurus....a wonderful discussion about the rules governing how zoologists name animals. These rules are laid out in the 'International Code of Zoological Nomenclature' and the 1985 edition runs to 338 pages. That is a lot of regulation! Gould's discussion centred on issues around a set dinosaur stamps issued by the post office and people's objections to the name given to one of these critters, and what he felt the proper response ought to have been. The essay gave marvellous insights into the process and variables of naming, and what Gould felt ought to take priority.

    I also couldn't resist re-reading The Panda's Thumb Of Technology - a wonderfully funny and interesting essay on how we ended up using the QWERTY keyboard. The story was as eccentric and fascinating as the keyboard itself. Besides being an academic giant, Gould was well linked to typewriters - his father was a court stenographer, his mother a typist, and Gould himself was still using a typewriter in 1991.

    To be honest though I was less smitten with the later essays. I read like an outsider Gould's passion for planets in The Face of Miranda. This is undoubtedly my shortcoming, not his. I just can't get excited by astronomy.

    Several other essays under the heading "Evolution and Creation" dealt with the arguments put up by people who have defended creationism, and the counter arguments. Again, not a subject that presses my buttons. It feels like arguing with people who say the world is flat, or the sky is going to fall down. Life is just too short..... Having said that, Wikipedia says that a Gallup poll in 2010 showed the 40% of Americans still believe in a strict interpretation of creationism! This suggests that many more arguments against creationism are needed, however much it may seem boring to me.

    I enjoyed the three essays about numbers, statistics and probability though. I am extremely small brained in this area, but even I could sense the wonder and excitement of the ideas Gould was discussing, and his enthusiasm is a delight. He even managed to infuse me with wonder at Joe DiMaggio achievements in baseball in 1941.

    So, for me a bit of a mixed bag, but Gould is a wonderful person for me to read. I am normally one of those shallow dilettantes that he is so critical of, and it does me the world of good to really immerse myself in ideas, and the background to ideas - in the way Gould makes one do so well in his essays.

  • Zhelana

    Rather than a book with a thesis sentence this is largely a collection of disconnected essays. Most of them are about biology, but the last chapter worth of them are about astronomy. He seems to take aim at current event issues, but then they are no longer current events by the time the book is published, and certainly not now, although one may still wonder how we have someone as incredibly stupid and uninformed as Scalia on the Supreme Court. There were a lot of essays about Victorian biologist

    Rather than a book with a thesis sentence this is largely a collection of disconnected essays. Most of them are about biology, but the last chapter worth of them are about astronomy. He seems to take aim at current event issues, but then they are no longer current events by the time the book is published, and certainly not now, although one may still wonder how we have someone as incredibly stupid and uninformed as Scalia on the Supreme Court. There were a lot of essays about Victorian biologists I'd never heard of, and why they were wrong, or why they were accidentally right, or even, on occasion, why they were actually right - but those were few and far between. There were some interesting essays on platypuses and how they aren't really primitive even though biologists keep acting like they are. My main problem with this book is that I picked up a book called brontosaurus hoping for some information about dinosaurs, and specifically what happened to my childhood hero the brontosaurus. There were only 2 essays on dinosaurs in the entire 500 page book, and I was greatly disappointed (although I did learn yet another new theory of what happened in the brontosaurus/apatosaurus story. If I had a dollar for every different story I've heard about the two, I could make a car payment). I guess I will look again for a book about dinosaurs to read. Anyway Stephen Jay Gould is good at making science approachable by anyone in some essays, but in others he approaches topics that I can't imagine the average person actually cares about.

  • jjonas

    I've read two other essay collections by Gould before this one, and this is more or less the same as those: quite good.

    However. I'm not sure if it's Gould or whether it's the essay format, but I'm really tired of the frequent reference and name dropping that seems to serve few other purposes but the author's vanity; "look what I've read, look what I know, look what I can do!" Why not just stick to the subject matter, let your light shine that way, and leave out all the fancy but unne

    I've read two other essay collections by Gould before this one, and this is more or less the same as those: quite good.

    However. I'm not sure if it's Gould or whether it's the essay format, but I'm really tired of the frequent reference and name dropping that seems to serve few other purposes but the author's vanity; "look what I've read, look what I know, look what I can do!" Why not just stick to the subject matter, let your light shine that way, and leave out all the fancy but unnecessary references?

    The essay in question for which this is the opening paragraph discusses evolutionary adaptations and how it's sometimes mistaken to think that because a certain trait is useful, it must have been selected for, or that because a certain trait or characteristic

    , it must serve some useful purpose, or it wouldn't exist. The opening paragraph has absolutely nothing to do with any of this, and it appears to have been prompted by the publication year (1794) of a book by Erasmus Darwin, discussing the subject matter of the essay. But the intro is just an awkwardly obvious example of the need to show off, pure and simple.

    The book was published in 1991, i.e. the essays were written years before internet was easily available. But the fact is that in this day and age that kind of stuff is just so much less impressive. Is there anything more embarrassing than a guy who's explaining basically what he read on Wikipedia on the crapper the previous day, without saying that that's his source and thus implying that he knows it "the old way", i.e. by reading specialist literature and/or magazines?

    The best thing in the essays are his insights into the theory evolution and the history of the theory, of course, as that's his speciality. But I just wish he wouldn't have tried to tie them up with something else in a "clever" way, as if to show off that he can start from anywhere and still end make a graceful transition to his actual topic. Because the fact is the transitions are not that graceful much of the time.

  • Gavin

    This meant a lot to me as a teen. Just one bit: the essay "

    " - with its shocking claim that only 30% of women orgasm from "PIV" intercourse - scandalised me. (He bases this on the

    of Kinsey and Hite, but

    than that.) The main point of that piece - using the pleasure-poor design of the two genitalia to attack a straw man view he calls "hyper

    This meant a lot to me as a teen. Just one bit: the essay "

    " - with its shocking claim that only 30% of women orgasm from "PIV" intercourse - scandalised me. (He bases this on the

    of Kinsey and Hite, but

    than that.) The main point of that piece - using the pleasure-poor design of the two genitalia to attack a straw man view he calls "hyperadaptationism" - had less effect on me, luckily.

    There are odd synopses of each essay

    .

    (I give general reasons to distrust Gould

    .)

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