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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 47.1 (2004) 157-158
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I Have Landed:The End of a Beginning in Natural History. By Stephen Jay Gould. New York: Harmony, 2002. Pp. 418. $25.95.
Stephen Jay Gould died in mid-2002 at the far-too-young age of 60. He had had cancer some 20 years earlier, but fought and survived it. This time there was to be no victory, and he was gone before most of us had the chance to say goodbye. Yet in a way, it is hard to feel sorrow at such a life, even if cut short. He wrote many books and more articles, giving pleasure and learning to countless people. There can be no greater achievement than that. In his own right, Gould was a serious scientist, a member of the National Academy of the Sciences and noted (with Niles Eldredge) for his paleontological theory of punctuated equilibrium, the claim that the course of evolution is one of inactivity (stasis) broken by sharp jumps or leaps from one form to another. But far more than that, Gould was a great popular writer, the greatest of popular writers who could explain an idea or expand on a thought in marvelous and fascinating ways, showing connections and inferences that none had seen before.
Although Gould's final illness struck quickly and with deadly force, it was as though he knew his time was coming to an end. Earlier in 2002, he had finally published his long-promised major work on paleontology, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, a veritable monster of some 1,500 pages. Just before, he had drawn to the end of his 25 years of writing a column, "This View of Life," that appeared monthly in Natural History. Uninterrupted by the earlier cancer, Gould penned one elegant essay after another, never failing to instruct and inform, and sometimes to irritate. These were collected later as books, beginning with the work that shot Gould to fame, Ever Since Darwin (1977). Now before us as his swan song, we have the final collection of the series, I Have Landed:The End of a Beginning in Natural History. It is an appropriate final volume, for in it Gould draws things to an end, reflecting on the work that he has done and finding peace and justifiable pride in his accomplishments.
The collection covers some familiar Gouldian themes. There is material on Charles Darwin and the people around him and of his time. There are defenses of evolution against the critics, especially (this being America) the so called [End Page 157] Creationists, who want to substitute for science their own biblically based reading of history. There is justification of the left-leaning causes that Gould always endorsed, and attacks on those whom he thought perverted science, particularly the science of humans in the cause of ideology. The old fallacies of race and sex and the like are brought out and castigated once again. And there are some heartbreaking pieces that Gould penned after the dreadful events of September 2001.
Most moving of all, however, is the introductory essay, where Gould looks back on his own family's history. Gould tries to make sense of what he himself had been able to achieve, standing on the shoulders of his parents and also of his grandparents, who came through the gates of Ellis Island at the beginning of the 20th century with virtually nothing in their pockets, but fortified by courage and their determination to make a life in the New World. For all that Gould found unacceptable and unfortunate in American life, he never lost sight of the really important values for which America stood and still stands. And this comes through in the final piece of the book, where he recalls how his maternal grandfather (Papa Joe) documented his arrival in America on September 11, 1901, with the words "I have landed."Then Gould writes what can serve as an epitaph for all those who lost their lives on that date a century later...