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A grand finaleI Have LandedStephen Jay GouldJonathan Cape 1799 pp418It is ironic that the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould - who wrote so majestically and informatively about life in all its rich biological intricacy - has produced a valedictory work so redolent of deathApart from the authors own demise last week I Have Landed is striking for its unexpected images of loss and grieving notably those concerned with the destruction of the World Trade Centre It is a measure of Goulds zest for life and his belief in ordinary human decency that he nevertheless manages to wring a thoroughly fulfilling book from this miasma of miseryConsider the title of this Goulds final collection of essays I Have Landed was the last of the 300 that he produced for the US journal Natural History and refers to the words that his grandfather Papa Joe a Hungarian immigrant scribbled on a notebook on the day he arrived at Ellis Island in New York I have landed September 11 1901The essay on the fragile continuity of life appeared in January 2001 Eight months later exactly 100 years after Papa Joes landing his adopted city suffered a calamity that will ensure his arrival date is etched in communal memory It was the most eerie coincidence that I have ever viscerally experienced says GouldYet Gould is able to detect signs of hope from the events of a day of death that has not been witnessed in America since Gettysburg Remember the Great Asymetry he says The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil not in the high frequency of evil people We should not be blinded by the occasional successes of isolated psychopaths he says Ordinary kindness trumps paroxysmal evil by at least a million events to one It is a central aspect of our being as a speciesIt is typical Gould high in emotion and rich in historical perspective
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