There is nothing quite like a conversation with Stephen Jay Gould to knock a little evolutionary humility into a person.
Man--or even woman--as the crowning achievement of some grand cosmic plan?
What mortal conceit.
"We're an afterthought," said Gould, the distinguished paleontologist, essayist, Harvard University professor and author. "A little accidental twig."
The desire "to see evolution as predictably preparatory for the evolution of human consciousness . . . is our human arrogance," Gould said one afternoon in his office in Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology.
In fact, although "a great, transcendent invention," consciousness is merely "a lucky afterthought," like human life, Gould maintains.
And rather than a "predictable, progressive process" that culminated in the development of human life, natural history is a series of largely serendipitous events, marked less by chaos or randomness than by contingency.
In short, Gould believes, human history has been a fairly chancy business.
It rattles people to hear talk like this, Gould said: "We accept it for historical events. We all know the South could have won the Battle of Gettysburg, for example."
But unpredictability in nature, the idea that "what happens is one of a billion possible scenarios," makes people uncomfortable.
A smallish man, Gould obviously relishes the task of toppling humans from their evolutionary high horse.
"I think it is threatening to most people," he said. "I don't mean that in an overt sort of way. But it's threatening to a kind of comfort, to a solace that people find" in the predictability of viewing humans as nature's final evolutionary refinement.
Officially described as a professor of geology, Gould, 48, prefers to think of himself as an evolutionary biologist, focusing primarily on mathematical problems of growth and form applied to evolution of lineages.
At Harvard, Gould's hugely popular undergraduate courses in geology, biology and the history of science rank him among faculty superstars. He dismisses his acclaim on campus by insisting that students only sign up for his courses "because there's a science requirement" for graduation.
But outside academe, Gould is vastly better known as the author of a series of inventively titled books that have captured the popular fancy without costing Gould his scientific credibility.
His most recent literary effort, "Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History" (W.W. Norton, $19.95), climbed to national bestseller lists within weeks of its publication last month.
With its title inspired by the Frank Capra movie that Gould says he has watched every Christmas Eve for as many years as he can remember, "Wonderful Life" uses the illustration of the Burgess Shale, a small fossil area in British Columbia, to demonstrate Gould's theory that humans are little more than an accident of nature.
First discovered by the American paleontologist Charles Walcott in 1909, the Burgess yielded a remarkable array of animal life from 530 million years ago. This was the period just after the "Cambrian explosion," when the antecedents of most modern groups of animals began to appear on the planet.
Walcott proceeded first to bestow upon his find strange names derived mainly from the area's Indian heritage.
Then the longtime head of the Smithsonian Institution misclassified the entire group of Burgess animals so that they served, Gould writes, as "a set of primitive or ancestral forms of later, improved life."
His error went uncorrected until the 1970s, when two Cambridge University scientists showed not only that "most Burgess organisms do not belong to familiar groups," but that the anatomical diversity of these creatures exceeds "the entire spectrum of invertebrate life in today's oceans."
To the eye trained to assume that evolution leads ultimately to a two-legged beast with no tail and varying degrees of superficial body hair, the animals from the Burgess look as bizarre as the names Walcott and his successors gave them. One, Opabinia, has five eyes and a frontal protrusion that looks like a vacuum cleaner. Another, Hallucigenia, brandishes seven tentacles and moves about on seven pairs of legs.
But to Gould, the Burgess organisms validate the doctrine of contingency. He harks back to the metaphor of "It's a Wonderful Life."
In the movie, Jimmy Stewart is contemplating suicide when a guardian angel plays back a tape of his life to show him how different things would have been without him. Play back the tape of life on Earth, Gould contends, and the chances that man or an intelligent creature like man would have evolved are slim.
"It's a grand-scale lottery," Gould said.
Like his earlier works, his new book is complicated; it is not read and digested without some effort. But his use of a highly personal kind of prose, with continuing reference to baseball, movies, science fiction and assorted cosmic jokes, makes it less intimidating.
That quality of accessibility puts Gould in the literary league of scientists like Lewis Thomas and Carl Sagan, suggested his editor, Ed Barber. Both were serious scientists who managed to break into the marketplace of popular reading. More recently, they have been joined by writers such as James Gleick, whose "Chaos" (Viking) surprised even its publisher with its huge success, and Stephen Hawking, whose "A Brief History of Time" has spent more than a year and a half on some national hard-cover bestseller lists.
"I think people realize they live in a scientific and technical world," Barber said when asked to account for this phenomenon of mega-popular science books. "I think it kind of nags in the backs of people's minds. They want to know about their world."
Maybe, said Ann Harris, Stephen Hawking's editor at Bantam, the growing popularity of this genre of science books reflects an increasing hunger to understand how the world works.
"All we can do is make uneducated guesses and offer intuitive judgments," Harris said. "But I think it is true that if you can impose some kind of order on the universe, there is reason to be able to sustain some kind of optimism in a world where that is otherwise difficult."
The ongoing interest in Hawking's "Brief History" "startled everyone," Harris said.
"We expected major, major attention. We expected respectable sales," she said. "But we didn't expect a phenomenon."
One reason its success caught so many people by surprise is that "Brief History" is very, very hard to read.
"It is disarmingly accessible for the preface and about a dozen pages," Harris said. "Then it is very hard going."
But at Norton, Barber said he would prefer that readers consume some parts of these books rather than none at all.
"Some of these books might be called popular science books, in the sense that they are meant to be read by a wide audience," he said. "But some parts of these books are not popcorn reads, nor should they be. We are much better off if people read some parts of these books."
In an office the size of the Burgess Shale, and perhaps just as cluttered with layers of history, Gould offered his own explanation for why books like his attract a strong readership.
"There are a few subjects in science that are in some senses intrinsically fascinating to all people," Gould said. "There are a half a dozen or so key questions--infinity of space, eternity of time--and evolution is one of them.
"The question is, 'Why are we here? What is our relationship to the Earth?' These are really deep, bull-session questions. They are unanswerable, but they continue to engage people."
Books like Gould's also fly in the face of a conservative religious and political trend that balks at randomness or contingency and sees human history as a divinely orchestrated process. New science textbooks in California, for example, will acknowledge Creationism by adhering to guidelines that state that "some people reject the theory of evolution purely on the basis of religious faith."
Gould, however, feels little threat from this faction.
Creationists, he said, "are not very powerful. They tend to be very nice people, but my God, they are so misguided and misinformed."
Nor does he worry excessively about losing his standing as a serious scientist by writing such popular books.
"If you worry about it, you shouldn't be doing it," he said.
Gould, "like a lot of paleontologists," traces his love for his field to a childhood spent haunting the halls of the grand old American Museum of Natural History on New York's Central Park West. Gould grew up in Queens, "and the subway was just a nickel then." He fell deeply in love with dinosaurs.
His sense of marvel remains undimmed, as does a streak of whimsy the size of the Olduvai Gorge. Consider an upcoming essay by Gould in Natural History magazine, in which he addresses the question of scientific nomenclature and classification.
It begins with this important scientific query:
"What do Catherine the Great, Attila the Hun and Bozo the Clown have in common?"
"They all have the same middle name."