SCIENCE BOOKS: A hive of activity

DINOSAUR IN A HAYSTACK: Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould, Cape pounds 18.99

It takes some gall to compare yourself to the great French essayist Michel de Montaigne, but then Stephen Jay Gould, as he himself observes in the preface, is not a modest man. He explains to his readers just why his essays are so good: they offer a "marriage of alluring detail with instructive generality, all told with the stamp of an author's personal involvement". It is a measure of the sheer pleasure that one derives from Gould's writing that such conceit can be forgiven.

Dinosaur in a Haystack, Gould's seventh collection of essays, contains his usual eclectic mixture of subjects. All his big themes are here - defence of Darwinism, rejection of eugenics and racial science, critique of gradualist theories of evolution, arguments for the role of randomness in natural history. Yet these are probably his least effective essays. There is an awkward earnestness about many of them which makes more apparent his weaknesses and prejudices. His scepticism about the scientific method occasionally guides him down a relativist path, his desire to undermine human hubris sometimes gives an anti-humanist tinge to his writing, while his attempt to separate science and religion paradoxically leads him at times to an almost spiritualist vision of nature.

Where Gould emerges as a truly gifted essayist is in those pieces which deal with more peripheral themes - "The Late Birth of Flat Earth", which debunks the idea that medieval theologians believed that the earth was flat; "The Monster's Human Nature" which delves into the Frankenstein myth; "Poe's Greatest Hits" on why Edgar Allen Poe should write a school text-book about sea shells; and the delightful "Left Snails and Right Minds" in which Gould ruminates on why natural history illustrators should always depict snails in mirror image.

In these essays Gould is at his most engaging, transmitting to his reader the wonder of knowledge. Like the good palaeontologist that he is, Gould revels in seeing beyond the individual fragments to the larger patterns, in making the connections between seemingly unrelated things.

My own favourite piece here is an essay on Tennyson's "In Memoriam". The poem was written after the death of Tennyson's close friend Arthur Hallam and is a highly charged exploration of the emotional, religious and philosophical meaning of such loss. The poem is especially remembered for one phrase: "Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw / With ravine, shrieked against his creed". Gould demurs from the traditional view that the phrase reveals Tennyson to be a Darwinist. He explores Tennyson's state of mind to make us understand the poet's, and Victorian society's, ambivalent view of nature. It is a model of essay-writing, elegant, imaginatively argued and with a true sensitivity to the subject.

Gould has a reputation for being something of a rebel, both professionally and politically, but at heart he is a traditionalist. Borrowing Swift's famous metaphor of a dispute between the spider and the bee, between a creature that constantly abandons his old web and builds a new one and a creature that preserves past work through the hive, Gould is "more impelled to advance the bee's cause". He bemoans the fact that the glories of past traditions may be lost to today's generation: "I am sad that I can no longer cite the most common lines from Shakespeare and the Bible in class, and hold any hope for majority recognition. I am worried that people with inadequate knowledge of the history and literature of their culture will ultimately become self-referential like science fiction's most telling symbol - the happy fool who lives in the one-dimensional world of pointland and thinks he knows everything because he forms his entire universe." In this sense, he notes, "the bee criticises the spider properly - an ephemeral cobweb `four inches long' is a paltry sample of our big and beautiful world".

Without a breadth of vision, without an understanding of broader culture, science is impoverished. "From a person who never reads beyond the professional journals of his own field," observes Gould, "I cannot make a good scientist, though I can forge an adequate technocrat." Science may be about creating the new rather than preserving the old, but Gould's students, and his readers, should be grateful that he is more inclined to be a bee than a spider.