The world's most revered and eloquent interpreter of evolutionary ideas offers here a work of explanatory force unprecedented in our time--a landmark publication, both for its historical sweep and for its scientific vision. With characteristic attention to detail, Stephen Jay Gould first describes the content and discusses the history and origins of the three core commitments of classical Darwinism: that natural selection works on organisms, not genes or species; that it is almost exclusively the mechanism of adaptive evolutionary change; and that these changes are incremental, not drastic. Next, he examines the three critiques that currently challenge this classic Darwinian edifice: that selection operates on multiple levels, from the gene to the group; that evolution proceeds by a variety of mechanisms, not just natural selection; and that causes operating at broader scales, including catastrophes, have figured prominently in the course of evolution. Then, in a stunning tour de force that will likely stimulate discussion and debate for decades, Gould proposes his own system for integrating these classical commitments and contemporary critiques into a new structure of evolutionary thought. In 2001 the Library of Congress named Stephen Jay Gould one of America's eighty-three Living Legends--people who embody the "quintessentially American ideal of individual creativity, conviction, dedication, and exuberance." Each of these qualities finds full expression in this peerless work, the likes of which the scientific world has not seen--and may not see again--for well over a century.
Anyhow, wanted to report back on a few things: First, on the writing--there are places where TSET needed a stronger editor, most particluarly at the beginning when Gould runs through his philosphical and categorical underpinnings. Here he's rather unnecessarily Germanic, I'd say. And there are times over course of the book where Gould drifts back into this mode: very long, complex sentences that could have easily been pared back in the service of both clarity and readability.
But these are exceptions over the course of a 1400-page book: for the most part Gould gives us his usual engaging, clear, sometimes colorful prose.
Another reviewer remarked the fact that sociobiology wasn't in the index. Niether is evolutionary psychology, but both of these things are talked about, both directly and indirectly. It isn't that Gould is playing "selective history" so much as that the Index is woefully inadequate for a work of this size and complexity.
Complex? Well, aside from the technical nature of much of the book, there is also a fair amount of organizational drift at the micro level. At the macro level the book is pretty effectively divided into logical sections, but within sections Gould tends to digress and return to pages-back points quite a bit. And a lot of the book is NOT really systematically presented. Rather Gould has a few assays (or essays) at a topic from different angles of attack. There is definitely a recognizable "view of life" behind these different sections, and the method works pretty well, really, as exposition, but . . . this sort of discursive style makes a good index an absolute necessity.
There's one chapter that has come in for a bit of criticism, a defense of Gould's theroy of Punctuated Equilibrium with asides on personal jealousy and other things driving his critics.
Self-serving? Yes! But interesting and enlightening, as well, putting the ball pretty solidly in the court of Gould critics.
There are garcious moments as well: his treatment of Dawkins's Selfish Gene theory is generally pretty open-minded, as is his parting exhortation to the budding field of evolutionary psychology.
If you are interested in this field, this is a book you ought to peruse extensively. (Dec., 2003)
Unfortunately, Gould died of cancer before it could be edited. The result is a meticulous description, defense and extension of Darwinian evolutionary theory that is unfortunately filled with excess verbiage relating to Gould's ego and irrelevant interests such as baseball and religious architecture, and too much pedantic history that I think contribute nothing to the fundamental arguments.
I first met Gould in the Evoluitionary Biology course that Ernst Mayr and he taught at Harvard University, in the late 1960's. I was very put off by Gould's constant wordiness and self-promotion. Over the years I read several of his books, with the only one to impress me being his [A Wonderful Life] on the early Cambrian Burgess Shale fossils. Thus, I began reading "The Structure of Evolutionary Theory" with a lot of prejudice, that was reenforced by the plethora of Gould's annoying writing habits and mannerisms that make the book much harder going than it should have been.
However, on perserving, my conclusion is that the work stands as the outstanding masterwork encompassing the development of evolutionary theory from before Darwin through the end of the 20th Century. Anyone who claims to be an evolutionist should have and read this book, bearing in mind that Gould was already sick before it was all written, and that there was simply no time for the rigorous editing that could have turned the masterwork into a book that should also be a best-seller.
This is undoubtedly a truly important work, not to mention monumental (in every sense of the word). So what if Gould's publisher could not afford him an editor ;-)
I look forward to finishing this -- will report back.