timons (timons) wrote,

Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes

    The 31st book of my reading year is 31 years old. Stephen Jay Gould's collection of reflections on Natural History, entitled Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes bears up very well, despite its age.
     As always, when his name comes up, I will say that I miss Stephen Jay Gould. I avidly read his essays when he was alive, and got to see him in person on several occasions. I consciously model my behavior on his, when it comes to public performance. I remember him refusing to have an escort to keep the public at a distance; refusing to be put at the front of the buffet line, or the microphone question line. He remembered that public discussion is actually personal.
     I also shared his general attitude toward the intellectual discipline of science. He insisted, as I was taught to do, on the primacy of testable hypotheses, and on the testing thereof. He kept Occam's Razor close at hand. He resisted canonization of scientists, and felt they should be studied for both their proper understandings and for their misunderstandings.
     He was persistently anti-reductionist as a scientist, and most of the "controversies" he was involved in came from reductionists who insisted on there being only one answer to any scientific question, even though reductionism has never, ever, worked.
     I remember marveling, on more than one occasion, at how he could tell an audience in a packed lecture hall that their belief in evolutionary progress was bunk, that humans were not "special" and were not a culmination, nor a pinnacle, nor anything but chance. He would undermine their self-image, and they would applaud him for it.
     While I read his essays avidly, often in their original venue, I was not compulsive about buying the essay collections. Poverty was a major contributor to that tendency, as was realizing I'd often already seen much of the collection. The good news with that is that I still have Gould essays to look forward to. Six or seven books, in fact. I take comfort in this.
     Especially because, as stated above, the essays wear well despite the progress of science since they were written. The reason for this is that the illustrations he uses may have become dated, but the essays turn on the idea being discussed. Those ideas mostly remain evergreen. For example, three essays in this collection hinge on the question of whether the three species of zebra are actually a "thing" or whether they are independent striped horse-related creatures. DNA allows us to give a strong answer to that question now, but the answer wasn't the key thing in the essay, and Gould left it uncertain. What was important, for his purposes, was the question.
      I hadn't known until reading "Agassiz in the Galápagos" that Agassiz had ever been there, and I found both the fact, and Gould's attempt to understand why he never wrote a word about it, fascinating.
     I also got to breathe a sigh of relief that I'd never undertaken a fiction project that has been kicking around in my files for decades, namely a piece suggesting that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin had participated in the Piltdown fraud. I have read several articles on the Piltdown Forgery, as well as having three different books on the subject (each of which fingers a different forger-in-chief). The thing I always noted as I read them was that Teilhard was, from a mystery reader's point of view, the "obvious" real perpetrator. He was too conveniently available, more conveniently available than any other known actor, and yet he was always omitted from the list of serious suspects.
     The temptation to make something of this comes from another fact: Teilhard was key in the discovery and publication of Peking Man, and all those fossils have completely and mysteriously disappeared. (Which is how the writer would put it. Actually they disappeared during World War II, and it's hardly a surprise.) Behold, I thought, a pattern!
     Well, a friend mentioned to me that Gould had written about Teilhard and Piltdown, so I had a vague notion that I'd better read his comments before pushing the concept any further. Yeah. What I learn from Gould is that he was convinced that Teilhard was a co-conspirator in a joke that got completely out of hand. He also discovered, when he started looking into the case, that all the major paleontologists thought so too, and that Louis Leakey was working on a book making a case for it, when he died. Some other major figures had held off making public declarations, because they knew Leakey was going to deal with it.
Besides the issues of opportunity, which I had noted for myself, Gould has searched Teilhard's writings for references to Piltdown, and the almost complete absence of remarks is enormously telling. He makes one remark about a missing part of the skull seeming "as if deliberate" but has little else to say, even though the Piltdown evidence was the only thing supporting his theory of human evolution. Too weird. His apparent lack of interest in the evidence, once the hoax was revealed, is also telling.
     I had entertained the theory that Piltdown was a joke that got out of hand (this has always been a possible motive for Dawson), but didn't have a clear idea why it hadn't been revealed by the perpetrators. Obviously if you set up a bait like that to undermine the authorities, you have to pull the trigger on it at some point. That's the whole purpose, right? Gould points out that if Teilhard and Dawson were the conspirators, then WWI could be the reason. Teilhard ends up in the Army, and in the meantime Dawson dies. By the time Teilhard is back in the scientific world, his friends and mentors have come down hard in favor of Piltdown Man. He may simply have been too embarrassed and ashamed.
    Anyway, Gould collections are still a pleasure.
Tags: natural history, stephen jay gould
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