Sunday, 25 September 2005

Eight little piggies

Listening to:

Beethoven, symphony no. 6 “Pastoral”. The Royal Philharmonia conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Just read:

Stephen Jay Gould, Eight little piggies: reflections in natural history.

This book is a collection of 31 essays, originally published in the Natural History magazine in what was Gould’s regular column, This view of life. Each essay is self-contained, and each is an interesting reflection on some topic in natural history, very broadly construed. For example, one of the essays starts off by talking about a contemporary observer of Mozart the child prodigy when visiting London. This gracefully leads on to a discussion of the way in which evolution works in a “modular” way, on systems or body components that can evolve independently of each other. (Gould cites the example of infant gulls and the way they “learn” to induce their parents to feed them.) Without such separability, evolution by natural selection would have a very hard time of introducing any kind of adaptation into organisms.

Another essay is an extended meditation induced by a visit to a quaint village in Iowa, one of the Amana colonies. These were founded in the early 19th century by a German religious minority, and now survive, at least in part, by selling tourists a vision of bucolic charm. Gould is a little cynical about this, but still admits to feeling charmed by the pleasant village environment. That is, until he finds the village graveyard, full of the gravestones of infant children. This he calls the Great Reminder, quoting Gilbert & Sullivan, of

the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own

Gould is equally lyrical on the needless extinction of snails in Tahiti; the unnecessary mocking of Archbishop Ussher (the man who dated God's creation in Genesis 1 to 23 October, 4004 B.C.); and how it is that land vertebrates all share a body-plan involving five digits at the end of each limb. It’s all good stuff: thoughtful and entertaining.