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Years ago I was walking out of my local library with one of Gould’s books of essays – which this one isn’t, by the way, this is a series of his book reviews. It was to be the first of his books I was to read. A man stopped me and told me that he had just returned the book I was about to read. He told me he was a creationist, but an open-minded one, prepared to read things by people who didn’t just share his beliefs. But that he hadn’t been able to finish the book I was borrowing because its message was pure nonsense. Needless to say, I found the essays so fascinating that I went on to read book after book by Gould.Early in this book he provides what has become one of my new favourite quotes: “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.” ― Max RegerBook reviews are strange things. A well-written book review can be more enjoyable than the book it was written about. Some are more informative than many books are too – this isn’t going to be one of those reviews. But the writers of reviews really do get the raw end of the stick. They are far too often accused of being parasites – I think this is a pity. There are any number of people on this site who write wonderful book reviews on books I would no more dream of reading than flying to the moon. Not because they say awful things about the books in their reviews, necessarily – but rather because I’m just never likely to get the time to read those books. That there are people I can rely on to read them for me and to give me enough information about them to be getting on with is one of the many things I really do love about this site.Gould’s reviews are also particularly good. Admittedly, I am unlikely to read any of the books he reviews here – even the ones that he raves about. Although I have read Not In Our Genes and particularly liked that, as did he.Large parts of this book are attacks on what he calls the adaptionist trend in modern biology. That is, the belief that any feature a creature has must have evolved and evolved for a purpose. No, it is actually worse than this, it must have evolved for the current use the creature puts it to. As he says repeatedly, referring to Voltaire’s Candide, such views assume we live in the best of all possible worlds. Then such ‘facts’ need a just-so-story to explain the evolutionary advantage they provide the creature. It is clear this gets under Gould’s skin. His point is that evolution doesn’t come up with the best of all possible solutions, it comes up with the solution that works given what is available to the creature to work with. Another book I’ve read recently discusses the evolution of the eye. There are two basic ways the very early part of evolution of the eye can go – light sensitive cells can either bulge out (and you end up with a compound eye – like insects) or it can dip in (and you eventually end up with an eye with a lens, like ours). The thing is that to see as well as we see you would need to have a compound eye one metre round on the top of you head. This would be somewhat costly for an animal and so no creatures larger than insects have developed that have compound eyes. Whether light sensitive cells dip or bulge hardly seems all that significant at the time – but if they do one and not the other it has consequences. And consequences there is no turning back from. You don’t get the option of going back and starting from scratch. Which is part of the reason why no animal has evolved wheels to move about on. Some solutions are simply closed to evolution, no matter how efficient they might otherwise have proven. All solutions are the present manifestation of an historical process. What was useful once for one purpose may now be used for something completely different. Feathers once used to keep an animal warm are found to increase the air resistance a creature faces, slowing down and making survivable an otherwise fatal fall. Feathers go from being purely for keeping the animal warm to enabling flight. As he points out, if one was the design some of the features animals have, it would not be hard to offer much better solutions, that is, if one could start with a blank sheet of paper – and that’s his point. For evolution the problems change, but you don’t get a blank sheet of paper with which to design your answer. Often you just have to make do.There are quite a few of these reviews about socio-biology. One of my particular favourites gets stuck in to Fritjof Capra – so, all in all, this was good clean fun. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of dialectics. And quite a lot of this book is concerned with debunking IQ - as with his Mismeasure of Man - a book I cant recommend too highly.I enjoyed this book, perhaps not as much as I have previously enjoyed his essays, but these reviews still make for interesting reading all the same.
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