BOOK REVIEW / A man with his finger on the future: Eight little piggies: Reflections in Natural History - Stephen Jay Gould: Cape, pounds 18.99

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The Independent Culture
EVERY month for the past 19 years Stephen Jay Gould has published an essay in the American Natural History Magazine. Over this period the series has grown from a cult into an industry, and the collected versions of essays have sold in phenomenal numbers. Eight Little Piggies is the sixth of these collections, and just as good as the rest. The only question is how long Gould can keep going. In a preface here he gives his answer: he intends to continue the series until at least the beginning of the next century.

Gould is one of America's leading fossil experts and evolutionary theorists, and most of his essays centre on some facet of biological theory. But rather than serving up his science cold, Gould invariably puts a spin on it, taking his readers down innumerable byways of history, literature and personal anecdote along the route to his theoretical conclusions.

The first essay here is a classic of the genre. Entitled 'Unenchanted Evening', its ostensible focus is the recent devastation of indigenous Polynesian snails by the Florida cannibal snail brought in to stop feral edible snails damaging agricultural crops ('there was an old lady who swallowed a fly. . .', Gould reminds us). But the snails are only one element in a pot-pourri that begins and ends with musical quotations from South Pacific and includes Darwin's response to Tahitian women, a family trip to the island, the seminal works of snail expert Henry Edward Crampton and the psychological differences between Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh.

As a native of New York City, Gould has never concealed the fact that he is more excited by cityscapes than by the great outdoors. In an earlier book he mocked those who use 'ecology' as 'a label for anything good that happens far from cities or anything that does not have synthetic chemicals in it'. Even worse, as a paleo-biologist Gould is aware that the earth has recovered from previous mass extinctions, and his occasional reminders of this have persuaded some of his readers that he is unconcerned about the current despoliation of the planet. These new essays set the record straight. Gould points out that the timescale required for such evolutionary rehabilitation - tens of millions of years - makes it completely irrelevant to human beings. Insects and bacteria will undoubtedly outlast the worst we human beings can do and in time they will replenish the planet with exciting new life forms. But even in the unlikely event that some humans are still around to enjoy this, they won't include anybody we know.

Other sections in the book return to familiar Gouldian themes, including the chanciness of evolution and its jerry-built style of bodily design. The title piece argues that there is nothing inevitable about our having five digits - a different evolutionary fate could easily have bequeathed us six, seven or even eight. Another essay takes the recycling of used car tyres into Third World sandals as a model for evolution's co-option of old structures for new functions, and suggests that even human consciousness is a beneficiary of this kind of biological opportunism.

What makes Gould unusual as a scientist is his strong sense of history. He has developed a distinctive vision of living species as nothing more than the surviving twigs on a great tree of extinct precursors. And, at the theoretical level, he never treats current controversies in an intellectual vacuum, but invariably refers them back to their often larger-than-life 19th-century progenitors. Even his more personal writing is filled with historical resonance. His 'musings' are as much of his parents' and grandparents' times as his own. Though only 50, he looks back to a golden age of music before rock 'n' roll, to DiMaggio's hitting streak in the summer of 1941, to the St Louis World's Fair in 1904.

Gould writes as a spokesman for, simultaneously, liberal humanists, the intelligentsia and the American nation. In an ideal world, these groups would coincide. As the years pass, however, Gould seems increasingly pessimistic about the real world: he worries about the the spread of McDonald's hamburgers, the ubiquity of the fax machine, the commercialisation of museums, the withering away of the slower, more varied life he knew as a child. His own essays provide the best answer to these trends. As long as his civilised literary-scientific concoctions keep selling in the hundreds of thousands, the philistines will not yet have taken over.