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[Comments] (1) Terror of Fox Terrier: When I was younger I read a Stephen Jay Gould essay about how textbook authors copy from each other instead of coming up with original ways of expressing ideas. The textbook (or, metatextbook, I guess) example is that Eohippus has been consistently described as "the size of a fox terrier" for over a hundred years, as the fox terrier itself has plummeted in popularity, and as the number of people who need to learn about vertebrate evolution despite not being the kind of Nick Charles WASPs who would know what a fox terrier was anyway has climbed.

I reread this essay today and I must have gone through postmodern puberty since my first reading, because this time I saw the subtext. Human culture is supposed to change and propagate quickly, by Lamarckian means. But the blind, semantics-ignorant copying seen in these textbooks shows that culture propagates by slower Darwinian processes too.

Textbooks evolve through sexual selection. Nothing selects against this bizarre and useless (and, Gould claims, wrong) comparison between Eohippus and a fox terrier, because nobody ever reads that sentence and tries to make sense of it. It is junk DNA. The whole text of the textbook only exists to make it larger, so it looks more attractive to school districts. All the resources are going into improving the textbook's plumage.

The reason I read the essay in the first place is that I've seen the fox terrier comparison three times in the past month or so. This is twenty years after big-shot paleontologist Gould publishes an essay totally slamming the comparison, with no one coming forward to explicitly defend it. The first time I saw it was next to an Eohippus in the horse evolution exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. I guess it was about the right size, but I've seen a real Eohippus fossil and I've never seen a real fox terrier, so what do I know? Could we get a more helpful comparison in a real museum exhibit right next to the actual skeleton? (The Gould essay makes a tenuous connection between the AMNH and the original source of the comparison, so maybe they're just being stubborn.)

The second place I don't remember where I saw it. The third place was in a book I just read called The Eternal Frontier, an ecological history of North America. Apart from the fox terrier comparison it was a pretty good book, though it was written by an Australian which means it exhibits the cowboy obsession common to non-North Americans who write about North America. It was also pretty depressing since it portrays the entire history of life as organisms going in and really screwing things up for other organisms (though occasionally an non-organism like an asteroid or an ice cap really screws things up for everybody).

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Posted by FA-22 at Tue Mar 28 2006 06:02

Fantastic find, I'm a huge fan of Gould's, however I did not remember that quote. You should sneak the phrase "size of a fox terrier" into your Ruby book (a footnote perhaps).


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