The Panda\'s Thumb -- Stephen Jay Gould

The Panda’s Thumb:
More Reflections in Natural History
Stephen Jay Gould

With a touch of humor, geology, evolutionary theory, biology, cartoon characters and even some references to baseball, The Panda’s Thumb definitely makes excellent reading for people with all types of interests. The old cliché, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” or in this case, title, holds true for The Panda’s Thumb. Theories concerning adaptations of the panda are only a fraction of the many exciting facts held within the pages of this publication. Gould is able to put what he writes about in words that are easy to understand without compromising the quality of the information. Many questions are raised in this book. Some questions that science just can’t answer at the moment. Time is a major theme in some of the essays in The Panda’s Thumb. I found these essays of utmost interest.
Stephen Jay Gould writes as if you were sitting in a chair across from him having an insightful conversation. His essays are written in ways that are down-to-earth, entertaining, and easy to understand. Bits of humor are scattered throughout the book. One passage read, “The history of any one part of the earth, like the life of a soldier, consists of long periods of boredom and short periods of terror.” These little scraps of humor are placed in the just the right locations. After reading one of his essays concerning bipedalism (walking on two feet) I chuckled at the following statement, “It is now two in the morning and I’m finished [writing]. I think I’ll walk over to the refrigerator…then I’ll go to sleep. Culture-bound creature that I am, the dream that I will have in an hour or so when I’m supine astounds me ever so much more then the stroll I will now perform perpendicular to the floor.”
Questions raised in The Panda’s Thumb run the gamut. They range from: Were dinosaurs dumb? To… How does the evolution of Mickey Mouse relate to that of humans? To… Why can’t Coenobita diogenes (the proper name for a large hermit crab) find a decent shell? And from… How can a 300-year-old tree be affected by the extinction of the Dodo bird? And finally to… What does the size of an organism’s brain size have to do with its body size? These questions and many more will either be answered by the book or will leave you pondering their solutions. Three related questions that were answered by The Panda’s Thumb are: Why do repeated hexagons occur in honeycomb and in some turtle shells?, Why do the spirals in a pinecone and in a sunflower follow the Fibonacci series?, and Why do so many snail shells, ram’s horns, and even the flight of a moth to light all follow a curve known as the logarithmic spiral? The answer: They are all optimal solutions for common problems. If you want to learn more you’ll have to read the book!
Time’s vastness is truly incomprehensible. However it is fun to think about such a perplexing concept. Essentially, all mammals live for the same amount of “time”. That is, in a biological sense. For example, small animals go through their life span more rapidly than large animals. This is due to the fact that their small bodies have to work faster and harder since their heart is smaller it takes many more pumps for them to circulate the same amount of blood that we do. So, they die more quickly. While the largest whales live for much longer because their hearts can beat at a slower pace. This is the reason we have come up with dog and cat years. It’s all in how it’s perceived. For instance, a whale’s song lasts about thirty minutes and then it repeats. We humans could never notice that because over that length of time we would forget exactly what was repeated before, but a whale could since the probably have a slower perception of time due to their slower metabolic rate. The mayfly lives a day as an adult, but to them it may be as if they had experienced an entire lifetime. For all we know… maybe we, too, are living but a day in the eyes of some