Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History

Stephen Jay Gould

Jonathan Cape (Random House), London 1996. ISBN 0-224-04472-9. vi,457, bibliography, index. Hardback 18.99, Penguin Paperback 9.99

Review by Kathryn Denning

Stephen Jay Gould's two decades of experience in writing monthly contributions for Natural History magazine has produced yet another excellent collection of reflective essays, this time on subjects from evolutionary theory and paleontology to the place of the museum in society; from extinction to the manufacturing of 'common knowledge'; and from academic infighting to the wonder of comets. The engaging elegance of Gould's prose is legendary it is for good reasons that he regularly wins science writing prizes and hovers on bestseller lists and his books are well worth the attention of anyone interested either in his subject matter, or in the task of making science and history accessible to a wide audience. Gould has achieved popularity without trivialising his material, writes with minimal jargon and maximal clarity, and speaks to the specialist and nonspecialist simultaneously. Only a few members of our own discipline come close; archaeology would do well to have more popular exponents of this calibre and inclination.

But why else should archaeologists, in particular, read Gould's work, in general? Because Gould sagely comments on the nature of history, of science, and of historical sciences, and many relevant insights jump from the pages of his books. Wonderful Life (1991), for example, compellingly demonstrates the power of contingency in history and evolution, and trenchantly exposes the false iconography of doctrines of evolutionary progress, which still pervade historical disciplines. Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (1988) is a detailed and humane exposition of the different ideas about the nature of time which are woven into written history, including the kinds of histories which archaeologists produce. And The Mismeasure of Man (1983) is absolutely crucial reading for every student of biological anthropology or osteoarchaeology (and indeed, for anyone who has ever held a human skull in their hands), as well as providing devastating background on subjects from eugenics and IQ to the 'nature vs. nurture' debate, which must concern all students of the human condition. I could go on, of course, because Gould's list of publications is extensive, doubly so when his technical papers are considered, and because I am definitely a fan. However, it's time to turn to the present volume.

Dinosaur in a Haystack would make a great addition to any archaeologist's desk, backpack, night table, or living room floor. (At least, those are the places where my copy ended up. It was a good read on trains, planes, buses, in the department when I didn't want to do my 'real work', and in quiet moments at home.) To begin with, the collected essay format is ideal for people on the go with only 30 minutes to spare at a time. The essay proper is a much underused form of communication, and Gould is master of it, taking the reader with him on romping intellectual adventures. And not only does he share thought-provoking observations about the workings of historical sciences, he provides terrific trivia too. You know those dinner parties where people assume that because you're an archaeologist, you're a dinosaur expert? Casually wow them with this one: most of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were actually from the later Cretaceous period (p. 226). (Apparently Michael Crichton didn't have too much to say for himself on this, except 'Oops', teehee!) And if you happen to be among English Lit types, you might wish to inform them that the work of Edgar Allan Poe which sold best during his lifetime, by far, was The Conchologist's First Book, a somewhat plagiarised volume of high school malacology (Chapter 14). The thing is, Gould takes nuggets like this, which could easily remain trivia and nothing more so what if Poe liked snails? and spins them into significant lessons in the history of science.

I also like Gould's way of looking at the nature of scientific enquiry. In his careful studies of past scientific theories and research, he shows us that, contrary to the assumptions of many modern scholars, our knowledge is not necessarily closer to truth than that of our predecessors but makes us feel at peace with this complex situation, instead of merely frustrated. He writes:

"Science does progress toward more adequate understanding of the empirical world, but no pristine, objective reality lies 'out there' for us to capture as our technologies improve and our concepts mature. The human mind is both an amazing instrument and a fierce impediment..." (p. 214).

I particularly appreciate Gould's understanding of another contradiction inherent within us all, that humanity is "freighted by heritage, both biological and cultural, granting us capacity both for infinite sweetness and unspeakable evil", and his firm position that scientists, just like all other members of our species, have both the right and the responsibility to engage with moral issues (p. 318). His three essays in this volume on "Disparate Faces of Eugenics" are excellent examples of this engagement, as they address the significant role of evolutionary theory in political ideology and government policies in the twentieth century.

Gould ranges with ease from government policies to geological laws. My favourite in the latter category is the essay for which this volume is named, "Dinosaur in a Haystack". Gould begins with the increasingly commonplace position that theory and fact do not exist independently of one another, but then gives a gorgeous recent illustration of the implications. As he puts it, it is a "fine example of theory confirmed by data that no one ever thought of collecting before the theory itself demanded such a test" (p. 149). It all began with the famous Alvarez hypothesis, that the extinction of the dinosaurs (along with about half of the invertebrates then living in the sea) at the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) boundary was sudden, and due to an extraterrestrial impact. The hypothesis, first put forward in 1979, was very unpopular with paleontologists for a long time, since they generally favoured the usual Darwinian idea of a gradual series of extinctions. This is where it gets interesting, but I dare not paraphrase:

"So long as Darwin's gradualistic view of mass extinction prevailed, paleontological data, read literally, could not refute the basic premise of gradualism... [for] even a truly sudden and simultaneous extinction of numerous species will be recorded as a more gradual decline in the fossil record.... Some species are very common and easily preserved as fossils; we may, on average, find specimens in every inch of strata. But other species will be rare and poorly preserved, and we might encounter their fossils only once every hundred feet or so. Now suppose that all these species died suddenly at the same time, after four hundred feet of sediment had been deposited in an ocean basin. Would we expect to find the most direct evidence for mass extinction that is, fossils of all species through all four hundred strata right up to the very top of the sequence? Of course not.... [because] a rare species may have lived through four hundred feet, but its last fossil may be entombed one hundred feet below the upper boundary. We might then falsely assume that this rare species died out after three fourths of the total time had elapsed... a classic example of the old principle that things are seldom what they seem and that literal appearances often obscure reality" (pp. 150-1).

Once this observation (courtesy of Phil Signor and Jere Lipps) hit the paleontological scene in 1982, it wasn't long before some researchers picked up the gauntlet, and began to modify their research programs accordingly. And, lo and behold, once the usual recovery strategy of sampling a handful from the haystack was abandoned, and instead, the haystack was picked apart one piece at a time, dinosaur prevalences were found not to decrease before the end of the Cretaceous, and fossils of ammonite species presumed to be extinct earlier were found in strata dating right up to the K-T boundary both facts unequivocally supporting the theory of sudden mass extinction. Gould tells the story with style and energy, and I for one sat up and took note because of its ramifications for archaeology.

This case of the Alvarez hypothesis and new research strategies is a sterling example of Gould's most unforgettable lesson, which is rarely spelled out for us in words, but taught by example, permeating everything he writes. It is this: know the nature of your records. This applies to evidence buried in the ground, but also to the pages of books written by our forebears. He says in his introduction that "I love to learn the details and the reasons of people's lives and nature's ways. I yearn to encounter these items in their original languages and first presentations, not through someone else's distillations" (xii). What I have learned from Gould is that this brings considerable rewards; through no other way but the painstaking reading of original texts could he have achieved the understandings of times and places past which he brings to the reader.

Of course, the book isn't flawless, but its small weaknesses seem generally to be the corollaries of its strengths. Occasionally, the essays are unnerving in their symmetry, with the elements falling into place too neatly, and the endings a trifle too tidy. (It may just be that Gould's practiced hand makes it all look effortless, but a few more ragged edges and uncertainties would ease my mind a little.) Similarly, while the disregard for the conventional separation of literature, science, and popular culture is very refreshing Gould cheerfully mixes William Blake with fossil snails, Macbeth with Jurassic Park, and Walt Whitman with fungi, adding his trademark splash of baseball wherever possible there are odd times when the literary allusions feel almost flippant or gratuitous. But I can easily forgive these slightly irksome moments, being more bothered by the lack of references. I do wish that sources were provided for some of Gould's more intriguing quotations and facts, for although there is a bibliography, much relevant information is omitted. However, full references are traditionally sacrificed by publishers in the name of accessibility, so this is likely a quibble to be addressed to Random House, rather than the author.

Regardless of these very small objections of mine, this is a wonderful book but even better, we have the good fortune of knowing that there will be more volumes of natural history with a human touch coming from this author. Gould plans to continue writing his monthly essays until the year 2001, by which time he will have more than earned a break, as well as our respect.

Kathryn Denning is an archaeology PhD student at Sheffield. Ever since her older brother announced at the age of five that he wanted to be a 'sailing paleontologist' when he grew up at a time when her own ambitions primarily involved cookies she has been interested in dinosaurs. She got into evolutionary theory and the history of science a little later.

P.S. Gould is, as always, both prolific and a jump ahead of the rest of us his newest book, published late in 1996, is Life's Grandeur (Jonathan Cape, London, 16.99 hardback).

Kathryn Denning 1997


assemblage 1997