The Panda’s Thumb

I haven’t read this book, but my assistant Mina Varsani has. Below are her thoughts on Stephen Jay Gould’s work.

More Reflections in Natural History

Stephen Jay Gould

A fascinating collection of natural history essays.

Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote this book in 1980, which went on to win the American Book Award for Science the following year. It is easy to see why, as Gould skilfully discusses all manner of phenomena from his specialist fields of palaeontology and evolutionary biology.

The book is kick-started by Gould’s musings on the work of Darwin, and in particular his observations of the unusual features of orchids. In his treatise on British and foreign orchids, Darwin outlined an unusual arrangement of petals in the orchid, suggesting that they have been ‘designed’ to ensure cross pollination of the flower. However, this would contradict Darwin’s own theory of evolution, which suggests that such changes in structure are a product of evolution rather than the work of a universal creator. Gould explains how this apparently contradictory finding is in fact complementary to the theory of evolution – that by adapting the use of a structure specialised for another purpose, we are observing the theory of evolution in action.

A more modern example of this is Gould’s own observation in the giant panda. These bears have developed an already enlarged wrist bone to allow easier stripping of bamboo shoots, and have therefore effectively grown themselves a thumb. Gould’s account of the evolution of this appendage serves to whet the reader’s appetite for the ongoing theme of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

One of the more controversial sections of this book begins with an essay entitled Wide Hats and Narrow Minds. This discussion centres around the question of whether brain size and IQ may be inextricably linked, citing the circumstances surrounding the weighing of the brain of the great French anatomist, Georges Cuvier. Whilst the essay begins in a light hearted manner, it soon ventures into the more sensitive area of politics and how bad scientists are influenced by their own prejudices. This is followed by the equally thought-provoking essays Dr. Down’s Syndrome, Women’s Brains and Flaws in a Victorian Veil, under the umbrella title of Science and Politics of Human Differences.

Gould’s gift for interesting and accessible scientific prose is demonstrated in his essay on ’A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse’. Gould takes a look at the physical characteristics of the Disney character and along the way is able to explain the characteristics of juvenile human form. And whereas lesser writers may get bogged down in the petty details of the science, Gould’s continued references to both Mickey mouse and his older cartoon co-star Goofy keep the essay relevant and interesting.

In complete contrast to cute cartoon characters, Gould takes a look at the gruesome birth and mating habits of the male mite Adactylidium. This species have almost perfected the art of maximising the efficiency of its reproduction. The females of this species rear their young inside the womb, allowing feeding and sibling mating to occur between the several female eggs and one male egg that are produced. Once all the female young have been impregnated by the single male, siblings obtain their nourishment from the only source available – their mother. As the mites devour their parent, so they are freed from within the womb and able to rear their own young, and so the cycle continues.

All in all, The Panda’s Thumb is a remarkable read. Gould’s essays are endlessly fascinating and thought-provoking. They consistently demonstrate the beauty and wonder of natural history. None of his essays feel over-long or over-detailed, yet Gould appears to have gone to great lengths to ensure the audience’s understanding of each topic and demonstrates the relevance of each tale within nature’s grand scheme.