Fat Man Talking

Reflections in Natural History
By Stephen Jay Gould
Penguin, 540 pp.

Forget the sarcasm of Spy and the fangs of Frank magazine. For those who may still doubt the power of the press to insult, allow me to recommend as unlikely a source as the latest issue of Stanford University’s alumni newspaper. In its account of a keynote address delivered on campus by Stephen Jay Gould – and while allowing that the Harvard biologist, as usual, delighted his audience – the Stanford Observer remarks gratuitously that “the often rambling, rotund Gould … refused to allow his photograph to be taken.”

The snide aside is doubly arresting, both because of its source and its subject. Devoted to grubbing for benefaction, the preferred idiom of most alumni publications is pure benediction: critical commentary in one of these booster sheets is as rare as steak tartare. On top of which, Stephen Jay Gould is not only one of the most skilful and engaging popular science essayists currently writing – and hence a mind as sharp as they come – but by reputation a man of singular poise and charm. Coming across an unkind word about him is like reading hate mail addressed to Santa Claus (another roly-poly gent). What’s not to like?

Leaving aside the question of what his weight has to do with anything, one turns to Bully for Brontosaurus, the fifth collection of Gould’s essays, most originally published in the monthly Natural History, for evidence of hubris or flabby thinking. Happily, one finds not a whit. On the contrary, the essays are as elegant and illuminating as ever, didactic without being pedantic, astonishingly erudite but utterly bereft of conceit. There is a word for what these 35 gems should inspire in thinking readers, and that word is joy.

The sheer breadth of the essays is nothing short of masterful. Gould moves from planetary physics to the intricacies and beauty of natural selection (most of us think we grasp the basic tenets of evolution, although we may admit to being fuzzy on the details; Gould shows that we’re often fuzzy on the central principles as well), from the biology and sociology of the female orgasm to our strange and all too common misunderstanding of the laws of probability (this last explained using the examples of Gould’s own diagnosis of cancer in 1982 and Joe DiMaggio’s 1941 56-game hitting streak – baseball features as a motif in Gould’s work the way bears recur in the novels of John Irving).

Even when he is handling an ostensibly familiar topic (the Huxley-Wilberforce debate of 1860 about the theory of evolution), the approach and the argument are always fresh. Even when he is railing at his favorite bugbear (the pigheaded literal-mindedness of creationism, a creed he finds as offensive to spirituality as to science), the attack never loses a sense of intellectual play. Pardon the pun, but all that glitters is, in this case, Gould indeed.

What makes these essays superior is, first, the author’s sense of history (most science writers, compelled to focus on the latest breakthrough and its implications, dwell in the present and the future), and second, his ability to draw connections between the most disparate of observations, all the better to let the grand pattern emerge.

For purposes of illustration, let me draw on my favorite of the essays, the one on why the typewriter keyboard is arranged in the familiar alphabetical jumble (QWERTY).

It’s a common misconception that the letters are arrayed for maximum speed. Not so. When the machine was invented in the 1860s, too-rapid typing would jam the keys. This wasn’t much of a problem for the old manual typewriters, which at least folks of my age will remember, since the jam was visible and could be corrected simply by reaching into the front of the machine. But in the early QWERTY prototype one couldn’t see the keys; hence the keyboard was designed so as to slow the rate at which the keys were struck.

The inefficient QWERTY design might still have been replaced had it not trounced a rival keyboard array in a much-publicized contest of speed in 1882 (although, as Gould points out, the victory probably had more to do with superiority of touch-typing over the slower hunt-and-peck). The result is that, even in an age in which typewriters have been replaced by word processors, we are stuck with an outlandish keyboard design.

If Gould’s purpose in this essay had been simply to explain a feature of everyday life, that alone would have been worthwhile. But the QWERTY story is in fact used as a metaphor to explain why certain animals get stuck with seemingly maladaptive features. It’s this that raises the essay – and the volume – from the merely fascinating to the truly illuminating.

So then, nerts to the Stanford Observer. What it mistakes for rambling is in fact the agility of a first-rate thinker. What it mistakes for vanity is doubtless the camera-shyness of a self-effacing man. And as for rotund, let me say this: Charles Laughton, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Ustinov, Orson Welles, Fats Domino, Fats Walker, Minnesota Fats … eg

Montreal Gazette July 6, 1991