As dense and lovely as are Shakespeare's words, I often find that I must attune my ear to the rhythm and cadence of his language. Reading Stephen Jay Gould is a lot like that he throws out $20 words with abandon and branches off the main road of his essays without warning. All I can say is: keep reading once your ear is attuned, you'll be fine.

Shakespeare dealt with the bones of the human experience love, death, hatred, loss. In Gould's newest book, The Lying Stones of Marrakech, he likewise deals in basics. While couched in mellifluous language, he's whistling a simple tune. A dismembering of the eugenics crowd those who would have you believe that one race is genetically superior to another is at its core a discussion of the pitfalls of research.

The Lying Stones of Marrakech is, in fact, a treatise on humanism, studying science by considering the people who practice it. A prime example is Gould's version of the story of Charles Lyell. Lyell is the father of the author's own specialty, geology (and, more specifically, uniformitarianism the belief that while the earth may change, it does so with agonizing slowness, over eons). Lyell came to his theory in, of all places, the countryside around Mount Vesuvius. Gould points out that Pliny the Elder lost his life while studying an eruption and that Francis Bacon died after catching his death of cold while conducting an experiment. You get the feeling Gould wishes he could make such a sacrifice.

An obscure connection between Galileo's observations of Saturn and a colleague's assessment of petrified wood; two French naturalists who took dramatically different intellectual paths; the so-called dullness of Darwin; and the unsurprising surprise about a sheep named Dolly all this and more can be found in The Lying Stones of Marrakech.

The only old bones James Neal Webb is truly concerned about are his own.

comments powered by Disqus