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SB&F's Throwback Thursday: April 10, 2014

Here's a look back at our 1998 review of one of Stephen Jay Gould's most popular books. 

Gould, Stephen Jay. Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History. (Illus.) NY Harmony 1998. 422pp. 98-11500. ISBN 0-609-60141-5. Index; C.I.P. 

Rating: Highly Recommended
Level: College, General Audiences

Eighth in a series of volumes adapted from monthly articles in Natural History, this collection of 21 essays (chapters) is, as expressed in the Introduction, a continuation of Gould's "effort toward the formulation of a humanistic natural history". (p. 4) Evolution is the central theme, as before, but in this volume emphasis is on the history of how nature has been studied, understood, and viewed by scientists and non-scientists alike. 

The chapters are grouped into six parts: (1) "Art and Science," featuring a tribute to Leonardo's talents as a paleontologist, (2) mini-biographies that are studies in contrasts (e. g., Richard Owen and Thomas Huxley, opponents in the "hippocampus debate"), (3) lessons to be learned from juxtaposing natural and human prehistory (paleolithic cave drawings) and (4) recorded history (e. g., Bahamian land snails as "could have-been" indicators of Columbus' first landfall), (5) several paired but different viewpoints on evolution in relation to religion, and (6) matters of perception (e.g., ostensibly "simple" parasitic barnacles, predator-prey "role reversal").

In each essay, usually after a related anecdote, theses are developed, with meticulous documentation from primary sources. Impatient readers may be bothered by the long sentences and frequent sidebars (usually in the form of parenthetical remarks), but Gould's eloquence makes getting to the point half the fun.—Robert E. Knowlton, George Washington University, Washington, DC