The Flamingo's Smile: Reflections in Natural History

The Flamingo's Smile: Reflections in Natural History
by Stephen Jay Gould

W.W. Norton & Company Incorporated
YA, C, GA **


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This latest collection of Gould's essays from Natural History magazine is as delightful as the previous ones. The theme is history, both natural and human. In the latter category, Gould shows how available ideas have limited interpretations of carefully gathered data. Bridging the two categories, Gould maintains that since there are no racial discontinuities in human genetic variation, human biological equality is a "contingent fact of history." Sometimes, Gould does not show how evidence has been used to draw conclusions. For example, in the title essay he uses an evolutionary argument to generate a hypothesis: If the strange curvature of the flamingo's beak is an adaptation to feeding upside down, then the upper beak must move during feeding. Gould makes clear why this hypothesis follows from the evolutionary argument, but he does not show how the results of the hypothesis test showed that it does move. Since one of Gould's main points is that evolutionary theory generates testable hypotheses, this omission leaves the reader dangling. On the whole, the essays are marked by Gould's usual careful scholarship and erudition and clear and nontechnical language. The vocabulary will require extra effort, but the essays are worth it to increase understanding.

--Reviewed by Dorothy Covalt Dunning in Science Books and Films, 22/1 (September/October 1986), p. 46.