Observer Review: I Have Landed By Stephen Jay Gould Essay, Research Paper
A grand finaleI Have LandedStephen Jay GouldJonathan Cape ?17.99, pp418It is ironic that the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould – who wrote so majestically and informatively about life in all its rich, biological intricacy – has produced a valedictory work so redolent of death.Apart from the author’s own demise last week, I Have Landed is striking for its unexpected images of loss and grieving, notably those concerned with the destruction of the World Trade Centre. It is a measure of Gould’s zest for life, and his belief in ordinary human decency, that he nevertheless manages to wring a thoroughly fulfilling book from this miasma of misery.Consider the title of this, Gould’s final collection of essays. I Have Landed was the last of the 300 that he produced for the US journal Natural History and refers to the words that his grandfather, Papa Joe, a Hungarian immigrant, scribbled on a notebook on the day he arrived at Ellis Island in New York: ‘I have landed. September 11, 1901.’The essay, on the fragile continuity of life, appeared in January 2001. Eight months later, exactly 100 years after Papa Joe’s landing, his adopted city suffered a calamity that will ensure his arrival date is etched in communal memory. It was ‘the most eerie coincidence that I have ever viscerally experienced,’ says Gould.Yet Gould is able to detect signs of hope from the events of ‘a day of death that has not been witnessed in America since Gettysburg’. Remember the Great Asymetry, he says. ‘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.’ We should not be blinded by the occasional successes of isolated psychopaths, he says. ‘Ordinary kindness trumps paroxysmal evil by at least a million events to one. It is a central aspect of our being as a species.’It is typical Gould: high in emotion and rich in historical perspective, slightly mawkish, but ultimately upbeat. His death, from cancer, robs us of one of our most gifted and productive science writers, an author who combined erudition with a highly personalised style and an intense involvement in his subjects, from fossils to his beloved baseball. ‘Although I have frequently advanced wrong, or even stupid, arguments, at least I have never been lazy,’ he claims, with justification, in the preface to I Have Landed.Gould began his career as a writer in 1974 when he produced the first of his monthly series of Natural History essays, This View of Life (named after Darwin’s remarks in The Origin of Species that ‘there is grandeur in this view of life’. The first collection from the series, Ever Since Darwin, was published in 1977 and further volumes have appeared at regular intervals. Now his final two dozen essays have been collected to form the core of I Have Landed, with the addition of a few other comment pieces from Time, Science and other disparate sources.In maintaining this stunning output ‘without interruption for cancer, hell, high water, or the World Series’, Gould resurrected the scientific essay from near extinction and restored it to the robust, provocative state in which its grand masters, Thomas Huxley and JBS Haldane, had left it decades earlier. This one indisputable achievement will remain Gould’s prime claim to fame, the popularity of his output also showing, as he says, that ‘contrary to current cynicism about past golden ages, the abstraction known as “the intelligent layperson” does exist – in the form of millions of folks with a passionate commitment to continuous learning.’Of course, Gould’s approach has changed greatly over the years. In the the beginning, his prose was crisper and his style more robust, but his subject range narrower. An avowed liberal (some Americans would say Marxist), he was much concerned to do battle with creationists who were trying to suppress scientific explanations of our origins and attacking those who believed human behaviour is innate and genetically hard-wired.However, as I Have Landed makes clear, his intellectual stance softened and his opposition to religion and sociobiology moderated. His writing has also become rather orotund and over-complex (his passion for words such as contingent, canonical, and, above all, maximal, is particularly maddening). On the other hand, his range has broadened magnificently as he has perfected his increasingly personalised approach to his essays. Hence the story of Papa Joe and the fragility of life, as well as his encounters at Ground Zero.What is also remarkable is the lack of whiggish hindsight with which he approaches his subject. There is no sneering at those who have bumbled through scientific life, getting ideas and concepts in a hopeless muddle. Gould’s grasp of historical perspective is too strong to allow that. Hence his defence in The Geometer of Race of the German naturalist JF Blumenbach who dreamt up the notion of the perfect Caucasian white person who is supposed to stand at the apex of all the races. In fact, Blumenbach’s ideas were misunderstood and traduced by others, says Gould.Thus I Have Landed provides us with our last chance to appreciate a Western publishing phenomenon, a writer whose relish of the intricacies of biology and evolution pioneered an explosion in the popularisation of science but who has never been bettered in the process. For years, I have anticipated the publication of each of Gould’s new collection of essays and have never once felt let down by them. I shall miss his books profoundly.
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