Stephen Jay Gould’s last book.
The title of Stephen Jay Gould’s twenty-second book on natural science borrows a phrase his grandfather scribbled in an English primer after he arrived at Ellis Island: “I have landed. September 11, 1901.” Last year Gould — a Harvard zoologist — ended an unbroken run of 300 columns on Darwinism (among many, many other topics) in Natural History magazine; this book would have been a simple collection of his final essays if the World Trade Center hadn’t collapsed on the centennial of his grandfather’s landing. The weird coincidence of dates inspired a handful of shorter pieces tacked onto the end, about Americanism, evil, and the New York skyline. These articles give the book some shape, but they were written in a hurry and don’t stand up to the longer natural-history essays, which are brilliant. Gould’s mind likes to scurry into every corner of high and low culture: Here he investigates Gilbert and Sullivan, myths of the Alamo, forgotten female naturalists, and Vladimir Nabokov’s second career as a lepidopterist. But he always returns to the theme of Darwinism. For Gould the theory of evolution offers a vision of an ancient and continuous “tree of life,” linking all creatures, and he applies this idea of continuity to his own catholic interests. The Nabokov essay, for example, starts with a bland debate over how the novelist’s butterfly-collecting and -classifying might have informed (or detracted from) his fiction; but the piece ends with a fierce argument against the wall between literature and science — a wall Gould himself, who died last month, has spent a career trying to topple.
Michael Scott Moore