The Panda's Thumb
by Stephen Jay Gould

A collection of short articles about paleontology and natural history. Except for the scientific names, the articles are enjoyable to read.
Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution—paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce. (20—21)

... the proof of evolution lies in imperfections that reveal history. (13)

Charles Darwin: "Rudimentary organs may be compared with the letters in a word, still retained in the spelling, but become useless in the pronunciation, but which serve as a clue in seeking for its derivation." (27)

Why should a general word for monetary compensation refer literally to a profession now virtually extinct, unless it once had relation with grinding and grain? And why should the fetus of a whale make teeth in its mother's womb only to resorb them later and live a life sifting krill on a whalebone filter, unless its ancestors had functional teeth and these teeth survive as a remnant during a stage when they do no harm? (29)

The panda's "thumb" demonstrated evolution because it is clumsy and built from an odd part, the radial sesamoid bone of the wrist. (29)

cultural evolution is our primary innovation. (137)

Idiots are so stupid they cannot learn to speak. Imbeciles can learn to speak but not to write. Morons are feeble-minded but still smarter than imbeciles. (162)

Children with Down's syndrome do not resemble orientals to any great extent, if at all. And, most importantly, the name [Mongoloid] only has meaning in the context of Down's discredited theory of racial reversion as the cause of mental deficiency. (168)

The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. (181)

It is gradualism that we must reject, not Darwinism.

The history of most fossil species includes two features particularly inconsistent with gradualism:

  1. Stasis. Most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking much the same as when they disappear; morphological change is usually limited and directionless.
  2. Sudden appearance. In any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and "fully formed." (182)
A new species can arise when a small segment of the ancestral population is isolated at the periphery of the ancestral range. Large, stable central populations exert a strong homogenizing influence. New and favorable mutations are diluted by the sheer bulk of the population through which they must spread. (183)

In the peripheral region itself, we might find direct evidence of speciation, but such good fortune would be rare indeed because the event occurs so rapidly in such a small population. Thus, the fossil record is a faithful rendering of what evolutionary theory predicts, not a pitiful vestige of a once bountiful tale.

Eldredge and I refer to this scheme as the model of punctuated equilibria. (184)

Still, the notion that life has been found in the oldest rocks that could contain evidence of it forces us, I think, to abandon the view of life's slow, steady, and improbable development. Life arose rapidly, perhaps as soon as the earth cooled down sufficiently to support it. (220)

The history of life, as I read it, is a series of stable states, punctuated at rare intervals by major events that occur with great rapidity and help to establish the next stable era. (226)

Haeckel, Germany's strongest contemporary supporter of Darwin, invented the biogenetic law—ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. (246)

Forelimbs of people, porpoises, bats and horses provide the classic example of homology in most textbooks. They look different, and do different things, but are built of the same bones. No engineer, starting from scratch each time, would have built such disparate structures from the same parts. Therefore, the parts existed before the particular set of structures now housing them: they were, in short, inherited from a common ancestor. (248)

The encephalization quotient (EQ) is the ratio of actual brain to expected brain for an animal of the same body weight. (263)

Carnivores have higher EQ's than herbivores. (264) brain weight increases only two-thirds as fast as body weight as we move from small to large mammals. (300)

Small mammals tick fast, burn rapidly, and live for a short time; large mammals live long at a stately pace. Measured by their own internal clocks, mammals of different sizes tend to live for the same amount of time. (302)

The amount of time between breaths divided by the time between heartbeats is 4.0 for mammals of any body size. (303)

Mammals tend to breath about 200 million times during their lives. ... We live about three times as long as mammals of our body size "should," ... I regard this excess of living as a happy consequence of neoteny. (304)

Year Read: 1998

Back to Libertarian Essays by Roy Halliday
Back to Nonfiction Book Notes
Back to Fiction Book Notes
Back to Book Notes by Author

This page was last updated on September 26, 2011.
This site is maintained by Roy Halliday. If you have any comments or suggestions, please send them to