BOOKS

A universe unfolding

THE FLAMINGO’S SMILE: REFLECTIONS IN NATURAL HISTORY By Stephen Jay Gould

DON CUMMING March 10 1986
BOOKS

A universe unfolding

THE FLAMINGO’S SMILE: REFLECTIONS IN NATURAL HISTORY By Stephen Jay Gould

DON CUMMING March 10 1986

A universe unfolding

BOOKS

THE FLAMINGO’S SMILE: REFLECTIONS IN NATURAL HISTORY By Stephen Jay Gould

(Penguin Books, 1+76 pages, $22.95)

The stunning variety of creatures to which human beings are linked is “an endless source of delight, not to mention essays,” writes Stephen Jay Gould. A Harvard professor of geology, biology and the history of science, Gould is an ideal popularizer: in The Flamingo's Smile, the fourth collection of his columns from Natural History Magazine, lay readers will repeatedly encounter creatures they have never heard of—and never lose that sense of kinship.

Gould’s method is to entertain, but his purpose is to inform. After a long, amusing dissertation on how the flamingo’s beak has acquired a smiling shape because of the bird’s habit of eating with its head upside down, Gould suddenly reverts to the role of steely-eyed teacher. “These adaptations to life upside down are not just funny facts,” he says, before enlarging

the reader’s grasp of how behavior triggers evolutionary change.

Throughout the book, Gould uses unusual examples to illuminate whatever his wide-ranging mind encompasses. His study of echinoderms—a class of marine invertebrates —supports a highly persuasive essay on why no ma-

As baseball has evolved, the players—like marine invertebrates—have become standardized, with fewer extremes

jor-league baseball player has been able to push his seasonal batting average above .400 since Ted Williams did it in 1941. Gould’s point is that as baseball has evolved, the players—like echinoderms—have become standardized, with fewer extreme variations at either end of the scale. Readers with no compelling interest in either base-

ball or echinoderms are rewarded with a better understanding of natural processes.

Gould can move his readers as well as enlighten them. But he becomes infuriated when recounting what he clearly regards as abuses of science— as in the case of Carrie Buck. She was sterilized in Virginia in 1927 on the grounds that she, her mother and her illegitimate child were feeble-minded, and, in the U.S. Supreme Court judgment of Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” It was a triumph for the eugenics movement, then promoted as the latest in scientific modernism. But, says Gould, subsequent investigation has shown that none of the three were retarded. The decision was a case of persecution of the Bucks’ supposed immorality and social deviance.

Underlying Gould’s horror at the denial of Carrie Buck’s humanity is his conviction that variety, and individuality, are the raw material of evolutionary change. “Life is the product of a contingent past, not the inevitable and predictable result of simple, timeless laws of nature,” he declares. Finding meaning by studying nature’s oddities, Gould eloquently shares both his discoveries and his delight in them.

DON CUMMING