In Love with Every Ort

by Leonard Krishtalka

Dinosaur in a Haystack is Stephen Jay Gould's seventh volume of essays, what he likes to call "reflections in natural history." Seven seems to be the cardinal number of our species. At least it has become the most resonant number on Earth, consecrated as it is by biblical responsibility -- seven days of creation, seven years of plenty, seven lean years, seven deadly sins -- and branded as it is by history and geography: seven hills of Rome, seven seas, seven sacraments, seven sages, seven weeks war, seven years war, seven against Thebes, Seven Wonders of the World, seven year itch. Even the human skull rests atop seven cervical vertebrae. Clearly, a seventh accomplishment comes saddled with great expectation.

That expectation is dashed if one expects a quick "read" from Dinosaur in a Haystack, especially if one has not been following Gould's evolution as an essayist since his first "reflection" in Natural History magazine in January 1974. With each collected volume, beginning with Ever Since Darwin, Gould has wielded an ever more manifold mirror, probing the seemingly arcane and idiosyncratic for the cardinal connections between natural history and human affairs. So, in "The Late Birth of a Flat Earth" (Chapter 4), Gould links the tomb of Venerable Bede in Durham Cathedral to our derisive timetable of human affairs ("Dark Ages," "Middle Ages"), to the history of the myth of a flat Earth. "Four Antelopes of the Apocalypse" (Chapter 21) draws a web around George Washington's death on December 14, 1799, the Leiden Museum in the Netherlands, the senseless extinction of the blue antelope-the last individual was hunted down east of Capetown, South Africa, in 1799-and an elegy on being a museum curator, detecting the essential remnants of death on Earth.

There is another reason that most of the 34 essays in Dinosaur in a Haystack are not an easy read: Gould is in love with knowledge, with every ort and particle he has unearthed in tunneling from here to there through Victorian museums, hermetic libraries, European cathedrals, Latin doggerel and high-tech DNA sequencing laboratories. And he is passionate about exposing the piles of dirt and network of tunnels-every fact, how he came by it, what it means, its intellectual entanglement-whether you want the whole travelogue from place to principle or not, because each essay finally returns "home to evolution and its grand themes of time, change and history." Beauty is surely in the details, but for Gould neither is complete unless the details, strung together, grace a higher principle.

Gould also wants the reader to stick with him through a nature that is messy, that cannot be made neat by fiat of scientific ideology or oversimplification. Bravo! For my money, Gould is at his finest when he makes this point. Here, for example, is a paragraph from chapter 31, "Magnolias from Moscow" (one of the best), about the tension between traditional paleontologists-those who study the anatomy of fossil skulls and shells and teeth to reconstruct evolutionary patterns and processes-and a new breed, the molecular detectives, zeroing in on tiny bits of fossil DNA for clues to evolutionary kinship: Extraction of fossil DNA will not make the traditional paleontology of overt fossils obsolete. First of all, to make the obvious (but not adequately appreciated) philosophical point, DNA code and organisms represent disparate biological objects. The gene is not more "basic" than the organism, or closer to the "essence of life," whatever that means. Organisms have DNA codes, and they maintain external forms and behaviors. Both are equal and fundamental components of being. DNA does not even build an organism directly, but must work through complex internal environments of embryological development, and external environments of surrounding conditions. We will not know the core and essence of humanity when we complete the human genome project. Of the eight sections in the book, part five, "The Glory of Museums" (chapters 17 - 21), is the most moving, but that may merely reveal the terrain where Gould and I are closest to home and where evolution's principles don't get much grander: the great diversity of life on the planet, its ennobling 3.5-billion-year history, its lack of "progression" along some great chain of being, and its inexorable, apocalyptic extermination at human hands. Gould doesn't preach, but I will: It is the mission of natural history museums to document and teach these principles, for the sake of knowledge and, ultimately, the stewardship of life on Earth. With the knowledge they hold, natural history museums are the biodiversity conscience of the nation, for, if not us, who?

Finally, every museum employee, visitor and patron ought to read chapter 19, "Evolution by Walking." Using the new hall of fossil mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Gould questions the governing rationale of virtually all "life through time" exhibits at most natural history museums, including Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Displays typically begin with Paleozoic invertebrates, followed by fossil fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and finally humans. The rationale is temporal order- oldest fossils at the beginning, youngest fossils at the end-and the evolution from lower to higher, as if the history of life on Earth merely told "a sequential tale of most progressive at any moment, with superseded groups dropped forever once a `new ruler' emerges, even though the old groups may continue to flourish and diversify." Instead, the American Museum laid out its fossil animals along the tree of life. Visitors walk the pattern and timing of the tree's genealogical trunks and limbs, turning left for shrews and right for elephants, reaching primates before horses, and whales after rodents, ever faithful to evolutionary kinship and branching order. It dispels Gould's favorite target: the ideology of progress in evolution. But is it perfect? No, because it too is driven by a different ideology called "cladistics," which causes its own collateral damage: it pays scant attention to unique specializations (e.g., the bill of the duckbill platypus) and pays no attention to emergent evolutionary trends. For me, one of those trends is progress, in the sense of increasing independence from the external environment. But read Gould for the counter argument and, above all, for the realization that Nature is not as simple as its observers.

Leonard Krishtalka is director of the Natural History Museum and professor of systematics and ecology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas. During his tenure at Carnegie Museum of Natural History his "Missing Links" columns were a popular feature of Carnegie Magazine.

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