Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History. – book review
Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould (New York: Harmony Books, 1998); 422 pp.; $25.00 cloth.
Stephen Jay Gould’s eighth book of essays is drawn from his previously published material in Natural History magazine and covers a wide range of topics. The title derives from two of the subjects discussed: Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, in which he comments–long before Charles Darwin–about mountain-top discoveries of clam shells and other fossils; and Martin Luther’s 1521 command appearance before the Holy Roman Empire’s diet, which met periodically in the old German city of Worms to conduct its legislative business. Other essays include discussions of where Columbus first landed in the new world; Darwin; giraffes’ necks; prehistory cave art; the extinct and unattractive Dodo bird; the Irish elk’s antlers and hump; the sloth; Martian canals; the defenestration that prompted the Thirty Years War; bacteria; and many other subjects.
A professor of zoology and geology at Harvard and arguably one of today’s leading proponents for and defenders of evolution, Gould writes essays that are fascinating, informative, and worthwhile reading. He frequently goes off on tangents, juxtaposes subjects never before so ordered, and starts most essays in what seems the opposite direction. But rather than being off-putting or making for difficult reading, these strange positionings, misdirections, and digressions tend to strengthen and enliven the stories with surprises and eye-opening findings. Consequently, there isn’t a boring essay in the twenty-one published herein.
For sheer stunning impact, essay nineteen, entitled “Triumph of the Root Heads,” though odd-sounding, is a mindblower. It concerns a parasite–actually a barnacle of sorts–that latches on to a crab, penetrates it, and converts the crab into a slave. Honest] There’s also an essay about how fly larva eat toads! Gould says:
These essays probe, arrange, join, and parry the details within a diverse
forest of data, located both in nature and in the documents of human
struggle–all to access an inherently confusing but infinitely compelling
Warning: reading this book may, and probably will, make you want to go back and read the author’s previous works.
Jim Sullivan is the former director of the Northern Indiana Historical Society and a full-time freelance writer.
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