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BOOK REVIEW : Old Friend Shares Treasures of Nature : EIGHT LITTLE PIGGIES: Reflections in Natural History, by Stephen Jay Gould , W. W. Norton & Co. $22.95, 507 pages

January 19, 1993|BETTYANN KEVLES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

By now it is hard for me to imagine what it would be like to read Stephen Jay Gould for the first time. He is known quantity, his arguments a familiar part of the debate that has enlivened the overlapping sciences of evolutionary biology, paleontology and even planetary science for the past two decades.

"Eight Little Piggies," his sixth collection of the monthly essays that have appeared in Natural History magazine since 1974, offers us another good read but no surprises.

Certainly one of the greatest popularizers of this century, this Harvard professor is a genius at making science accessible to the non-scientist. Hooking his reader with references to music or baseball (his avocations), Gould blends in fascinating historical minutia with homey references before plunging into often complicated explanations of how what we think we see isn't quite that way at all.

Gould has managed to parlay his area of research expertise--the lowly snail--into a remarkable range of issues. In "Unenchanted Evening" he addresses the disappearance of biodiversity at the hands of human carelessness and cupidity by recounting a recent visit to Tahiti. He learns that the nearby island of Moonea inspired the song "Bali Hai" in "South Pacific."

Exploring Moonea, he discovers that an indigenous species of snail, Partula , made famous by early zoologists, is extinct because of human interference, first with the importation of a reputedly edible giant African tree snail that wreaked havoc with the island's agriculture and then with the importation of a Florida killer snail that was supposed to eat the African species but passed over it in favor of the benign Partula .

Those familiar with Gould's work will meet old friends, his father and grandfather, and old themes. Gould never skips a chance to illustrate his contention that there is no Great Pattern or inevitability to life as we know it. It is chance, once in the guise of a giant meteor, that was responsible for mass extinctions and the subsequent rise of insignificant mammals to prominence.

He can also be counted on to knock "the knee-jerk adaptationist," who argues that "the evolved feature works so well and must therefore, in some sense, have been pre-favored as a solution." This confuses, Gould repeats, current utility with historical origin.

On the other hand, his parenthetical inclusions of the origins of common words and ideas are always a joy. In "Darwin and Paley Meet the Invisible Hand," Gould reminds us that before the French revolutionary government established the meter as a ten-millionth of the quadrant of the earth's circumference from pole to Equator, yards, feet and inches reigned.

The last was defined as the length of the knuckle on King Edgar's thumb. And it, in turn, was subdivided into the length of three barley corns and the barley corns in turn were subdivided into the length of five poppy seeds.

Or take the serious matter of the role of female choice in evolution. Gould relates how Alexandra Basolo at UC Santa Barbara has performed experiments on the swordtail. This small fish comes in several varieties, into the males of one of which she surgically implanted colored swords because their own swords were transparent and thus invisible to females of a related genus.

The result of the experiment showed that females selected the artificially extended males, proving they "were basing their choice on sword preference and not other traits."

Gould theorizes that in this instance, the males with swords are simply lucky to have evolved extensions that make them look larger. Luck then, one would suppose, programmed females to select for greater size in males and luck has allowed for females to do the choosing in the first place.

Gould has an interesting spin on the matter of scientific misconduct, distinguishing fraud from honest error, this last "the inevitable byproduct of daring." Error, he points out, is everywhere, including in the text of Darwin's "Origin of Species."

Details aside, Darwin's greatest error, according to Gould, was his commitment to gradualism, the idea that change occurred at a steady pace.

Gould has become famous for his defense of "punctuated equilibrium," the concept (exemplified in snail fossils) that species remain unchanged for long periods of apparent stasis, then suddenly (in geologic time) appear in new forms.

His themes have not changed since he began his column in 1974, but his relationship with his reader has. Difficult as it is for me to imagine meeting his essays for the first time, it seems that it has become difficult for him to believe that all his readers are not familiar with the entire body of his work.

What is "Eight Little Piggies" like to a newcomer? It could be that opening the pages is like arriving at a party where everyone else is an old friend. More probably it is like reading Agatha Christie for the first time and learning that there are at least a hundred other treasures in print.

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