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Notes by RBJ on

Bully for Brontosaurus

by Stephen Jay Gould

A collection of 35 essays on diverse topics mostly connected in some way with evolution.

I'm in too much of a hurry, and too slow a reader with it, to read more than a sample of these essays. They are undoubtedly fascinating little gems. When Gould steps back from the detail to make a point he seems often to hit a nail right on the head. For me this is an enjoyable read; I feel a lot of sympathy with Gould and his position on many important matters. Still, I'm not going to read it all!

Notes below on most of the essays I have read.

1History in Evolution
1George Canning's Left Buttock and the Origin of Species
5Bully for Brontosaurus
7Intellectual Biography
22Kropotkin was no Crackpot
8Evolution and Creation
26Knight takes Bishop?

George Canning's Left Buttock and the Origin of Species

This essay illustrates the role of accident in evolution by speculating about the consequences of the outcome of a duel between Canning and Castlereagh which took place in 1809. Gould argues plausibly that if the shot from Canning, which removed a button but left him unharmed, had instead mortally wounded Castlereagh, then Jackson might never have been elected President of the United States of America and Darwin might never have formulated his theory of evolution by natural selection.

The story contributes to a case against the view that all features of living organisms are there because they are advantageous and have been evolved through natural selection. It may even be, argues Gould, that intelligence, that most prized of human characteristics, was an accident rather than an inevitable consequence of evolutionary forces.

Bully for Brontosaurus

This essay mainly concerns how biologists resolve disputes about the names of species. Which is really background (entertaining, perhaps even fascinating, detail) leading to observations about the controversy which enveloped the issue by the US postal office of a set of postage stamps featuring dinosaurs.

The controversy arose from objections to the use of the name "brontosaurus", for the species which is popularly known by that name, on the grounds that it is not the name ("apatosaurus") sanctioned by the appropriate professional body.

This is a lamentable episode because it raised to public prominance a debate which was not a substantive scientific debate but a purely verbal controversy; there was no matter of fact at issue. And the post office was right to use the popular name anyway.

Kropotkin was no Crackpot

A discussion of Kropotkin's work as an evolutionary theorist.

Kropotkin was an anarchist. His writings on evolutionary theory have often been dismissed as politically motivated.

In fact he was representative of a larger Russian tradition which emphasised the high levels of cooperation found between members of the same species in nature rather than the unremitting individualistic conflict insisted on by western writers.

There is more material in this essay considering why these views might have been held (e.g. socio-political factors) than there is on why one might suppose them to be true or false. At some moments Gould seems pretty even-handed between Kropotkin and the Western orthodoxy. At others he appears more skeptical of evolutionary theories sympathetic to utopian visions than of theories convenient for the justification of narrow minded, beggar your neighbour, individualistic ethics.

Knight takes Bishop?

This essay is about a famous debate between T.H.Huxley and Sam Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, which took place at Oxford University in 1860 (just after publication in 1859 of Darwin's "On The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection").

Gould's interest in this arose from long standing suspicion about the standard account of the debate, triggered by coming across a contemporary letter which seemed to confirm the suspicions. The main body of the essay describes key features of the standard account (a triumph for Huxley over Wilberforce + various detail) and then re-examines the evidence and shows that this account is substantially incorrect (Wilberforce didn't come out so badly and such damage as was done was mainly inflicted by Hooker rather than Huxley, whose contribution was insubstantial and lack-lustre).

In his concluding paragraphs Gould disputes the prejudice that the struggle between free enquiry and frozen dogma can be identified with that between science and religion. Though in principle the Church relies on authority and science on rationality, in practice an open and rational mind on scientific matters is compatible with religious belief in other matters, and closed minds can as easily be found in scientific institutions as in the clergy.

It is in these closing paragraphs that my sense of the essay shifts from mere entertainment, and I concede to myself that Gould has said something important and worthwhile. I'm tempted now to skip through the book reading the last couple of pages of each of the essays.

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