In the fall of 1973, I received a call from Alan Ternes, editor of Natural
History magazine. He asked me if I would like to write columns on a monthly basis, and he told me that folks actually get
paid for such activities. (Until that day, I had published only in technical journals.) The idea intrigued me, and I said that
I'd try three or four. Now, 290 monthly essays later (with never a deadline missed), I look only a little way forward to the
last item of this extended series—to be written, as number 300 exactly, for the
millennial issue of January 2001. One really should follow the honorable principle of quitting while
still ahead, a rare form of dignity chosen by such admirable men as Michael Jordan and Joe DiMaggio, my personal hero and mentor
from childhood. (Joe died, as I put this book together, full of years and in maximal style and grace, after setting one last
record—for number of times in receiving last rites and then rallying.) Our millennial transition may represent an arbitrary
imposition of human decisions upon nature's true cycles, but what grander symbol for calling a halt and moving on could possibly
cross the path of a man's lifetime? This ninth volume of essays will therefore be the penultimate book in a series that shall
close by honoring the same decimal preference lying behind our millennial transition.
If this series has finally found a distinctive voice, I have learned this mode of speech in the most gradual,
accumulating, and largely unconscious manner—against my deepest personal beliefs in punctuational change and the uniquely
directive power (despite an entirely accidental origin) of human reason in evolution. I suppose I had read a bit of Montaigne in
English 101, and I surely could spell the word, but I had no inkling about the definitions and traditions of the essay as a
literary genre when Alan Ternes called me cold on that fine autumn day.
I began the series with quite conventional notions about writing science for general consumption. I believed,
as almost all scientists do (by passively imbibing a professional ethos, not by active thought or decision), that nature speaks
directly to unprejudiced observers, and that accessible writing for nonscientists therefore required clarity, suppression of
professional jargon, and an ability to convey the excitement of fascinating facts and interesting theories. If I supposed that I
might bring something distinctive to previous efforts in this vein, I managed to formulate only two vague personal precepts: first,
I would try to portray all subjects at the same conceptual depth that I would utilize in professional articles (that is, no dumbing
down of ideas to accompany necessary clarification of language); second, I would use my humanistic and historical interests as a
"user friendly" bridge to bring readers into the accessible world of science.
Over the years, however, this mere device (the humanistic "bridge") became an explicit centrality, a feature
that I permitted myself to accept (and regard as a source of comfort and pride rather than an idiosyncrasy to downplay or even to
hide) only when I finally realized that I had been writing essays, not mere columns, all along—and that nearly five hundred
years of tradition had established and validated (indeed, had explicitly defined) the essay as a genre dedicated to personal musing
and experience, used as a gracious entrée, or at least an intriguing hook, for discussion of general and universal issues. (Scientists
are subtly trained to define the personal as a maximally dangerous snare of subjectivity and therefore to eschew the first person
singular in favor of the passive voice in all technical writing. Some scientific editors will automatically blue-pencil the dreaded
I at every raising of its ugly head. Therefore, "popular science writing" and "the literary essay" rank as an ultimately disparate,
if not hostile, pairing of immiscible oil and water in our usual view—a convention that I now dream about fracturing as a preeminent
goal for my literary and scientific life.)
I have tried, as these essays developed over the years, to expand my humanistic "take" upon science from a simple
practical device (my original intention, insofar as I had any initial plan at all) into a genuine emulsifier that might fuse the
literary essay and the popular scientific article into something distinctive, something that might transcend our parochial
disciplinary divisions for the benefit of both domains (science, because honorable personal expression by competent writers can't
ever hurt; and composition, because the thrill of nature's factuality should not be excluded from the realm of our literary efforts).
At the very least, such an undertaking can augment the dimensionality of popular scientific articles—for we lose nothing of
science's factual beauty and meaning, while we add the complexity of how we come to know (or fail to learn) to conventional accounts
of what we think we know.
As this series developed, I experimented with many styles for adding this humanistic component about how we
learned (or erred) to standard tales about what, in our best judgment, exists "out there" in the natural world—often only to
demonstrate the indivisibility of these two accounts, and the necessary embeddedness of "objective" knowledge within worldviews
shaped by social norms and psychological hopes. But so often, as both Dorothy and T. S. Eliot recognized in their different ways,
traditional paths may work best and lead home (because they have truly withstood the test of time and have therefore been honed to
our deep needs and best modes of learning, not because we fall under their sway for reasons of laziness or suppression).
Despite conscious efforts at avoidance, I find myself constantly drawn to biography--for absolutely nothing can
match the richness and fascination of a person's life, in its wondrous mixture of pure gossip, miniaturized and personalized social
history, psychological dynamics, and the development of central ideas that motivate careers and eventually move mountains. And try
as I may to ground biography in various central themes, nothing can really substitute for the sweep and storytelling power of
chronology. (I regard the Picasso Museum in Paris and the Turner Wing of the Tate Gallery in London as my two favorite art museums
because each displays the work of a great creator in the strict chronological order of his life. I can then devise whatever
alternative arrangement strikes my own fancy and sense of utility—but the arrow of time cannot be replaced or set aside; even our
claims for invariance must seek constant features of style or subject through time's passage.)
So I have struggled, harder and more explicitly than for anything else in my life as a writer, to develop a
distinctive and personal form of essay to treat great scientific issues in the context of biography—and to do so not by the
factual chronology of a life's sorrows and accomplishments (a noble task requiring the amplitude of a full book), but rather by
the intellectual synergy between a person and the controlling idea of his life. In this manner, when the conceit works, I can
capture the essence of a scientist's greatest labor, including the major impediments and insights met and gathered along the way,
while also laying bare (in the spare epitome demanded by strictures of the essay as a literary form of limited length) the heart
of a key intellectual concept in the most interesting microcosm of a person's formulation and defense.
The first three parts of this book apply this strategy to three different times, places, subjects, and
worldviews—an extended test of my claim for a distinctive voice based on applying biographical perspectives to the illumination of
key scientific concepts and their history (following the basic strategy, in each essay, of linking a person’s central operating
idea, the focus of a professional life in development, to an important concept in human understanding of the natural world—in other
words, to summarize the range and power of a principle by exemplifying its role in the intellectual development of a particularly
interesting scientist). Thus I have tried to encapsulate, in the unforgiving form of an essay, the essence of both a person (as
expressed in the controlling idea of his scientific life) and a concept (through the quintessentially human device of displaying its
development in an individual life).
Part I treats the most fascinating period in my own subject of paleontology, the premodern struggle (sixteenth to
early eighteenth centuries) to understand the origin of fossils while nascent science struggled with the deepest of all questions
about the nature of both causality and reality themselves. Are fossils the remains of ancient organisms on an old earth, or
manifestations of a stable and universal order, symbolically expressed by correspondences among nature’s three kingdoms of animal,
vegetable, and mineral, with fossils arising entirely within the mineral kingdom as analogs of living forms in the other two realms?
No subject could be more crucial, and no alternative view more eerily unfamiliar, than this particular battleground for the nature of
reality. I present three variations upon this theme, each biographically expressed: the early-eighteenth-century tale of paleontology's
most famous hoax, combined with a weirdly similar story
from modern Morocco; the linkage of the unknown Stelluti to the preeminent Galileo through their friendship, and through a common
error that unites the master's original view of Saturn with Stelluti's erroneous belief that petrified wood arose in the mineral
kingdom; and finally, a "reversed" biography expressed in terms of an organism under study (the brachiopod fossils that were once
called "vulva stones" for their resemblance to female genitalia) rather than a person pursuing the investigation.
Part II then discusses the greatest conjunction of a time, a subject, and a group of amazing people in the history
of natural history: late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century France, when a group including some of the most remarkable
intellects of the millennium invented the scientific study of natural history in an age of revolution.
Georges Buffon establishes a discipline, by the
grandest route of virtually defining a new and historically based way of knowing, in the forty-four volumes of his eminently literary
Histoire naturelle, and then loses public recognition, for
interesting and understandable reasons, in the midst of his ubiquity. Antoine Lavoisier,
the most stunningly incisive intellect I have ever encountered, literally adds a new dimension to our understanding of nature in the
geometry of geological mapping, his one foray (amidst intentions cut short by the guillotine) into my profession.
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck belies his own unfairly imposed reputation for
error and inflexibility with a heartrending reassessment of the foundations of his own deepest belief—in an odyssey that begins with a
handwritten comment and drawing, inked by Lamarck into his own copy of his first evolutionary treatise, and here discovered and
presented for the first time.
Part III then illustrates the greatest British challenge to this continental preeminence: the remarkable, and
wonderfully literate, leading lights of Victorian science in Darwin's age of turmoil and reassessment: the heart of Lyell's
uniformitarianism as seen (literally) by visiting the site of his most
famous visual image, the
pillars of Pozzuoli, used as a
frontispiece to all editions of his Principles of
Geology; Darwin's own intellectual development from such an unpromising temperament and early training to an ultimately
understandable role as the most gentle, yet thorough revolutionary in the history of science; Richard Owen's invention of dinosaurs as
an explicit device to subvert the evolutionary views of a generation before Darwin; and Alfred Russel Wallace on Victorian certainties
and subsequent unpredictabilities.
The last three parts of this book do not invoke biography so explicitly, but they also use the same device of
embodying an abstraction within a particular that can be addressed in sufficient detail and immediate focus to fit within an essay.
The interlude of part IV presents some experiments in the different literary form of short takes (op-ed pieces,
obituary notices, and even, in one case, an introductory statement for Penguin CD's
series of famous classical compositions). Here I include six attempts (the literal meaning of essay) to capture the most elusive
and important subject of all: the nature and meaning of excellence, expressed as a general statement about substrates (chapter 11)
followed by five iterations on the greatness of individuals and their central passions across a full range of human activity—for
excellence must be construed as a goal for all varieties of deeds and seasons, not only for mental categories—from bodily grace
and dignity within domains debased by the confusion of celebrity with stature; to distinctive individuality within corporate
blandness; to the intellectual innovations more commonly cited by scholars to exemplify this most precious (and uncommon) of human
Part V, on scientific subjects with more obvious and explicit social consequences (and often, unacknowledged
social origins as well), also uses biography, but in a different way to link past stories with present realities—to convey the lesson
that claims for objectivity based on pure discovery often replay episodes buried in history, and proving (upon exhumation and
linkage) that our modern certainties flounder within the same complexities of social context and mental blockage: Spencer's social
Darwinism, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and
modern eugenics (chapter 17); contemporary boasts about the discovery of genes for specific behaviors,
Davenport’s heritability of wanderlust, and the old medical theory of humors (18);
Dolly the cloned sheep, the nature of identical twins, and the decapitation of Louis XVI (19);
J.B.S. Haldane on the "humaneness" of poison gas in warfare,
and the role and status of unpredictability in science (20).
Finally, part VI abandons biography for another device of essayists: major themes (about evolution’s different
expression across scales of size and time) cast into the epitome of odd or intriguing particulars:
fossil embryos nearly 600 million years old (21);
three stories about measurable evolution in snails,
lizards, and fishes (22), conventionally misinterpreted as modest enough to prove the efficacy of Darwin’s mechanism extended across
the immensity of geological time, but far too rapid and convulsive to convey any such meaning when properly read at this grand and
unfamiliar scale; and avoidance in antipathy among several Christian groups (23) that "share" Jerusalem's
Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the traditional site of
At this equipoise, with one more foray into the breach yet to come, I can only thank readers who have joined me
on this rocky journey. For only the conjunction of growing fellowship and increasing knowledge—a loop of ethical and intellectual,
emotional and rational feedback that positively rings with the optimism of potential survival, maybe even transcendence, in this
endlessly fascinating world of woe—can validate the accident of our existence by our free decision to make maximal use of those
simple gifts that nature and evolution have granted us.