The Dogs That Do Not Bark For Dawkins
Not perhaps the most precise reference there (and no where near the accurate quote), but still, a pointer to a good story.
In re Richard Dawkins, I’m thinking of what seems strangely missing in his latest edited book, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing.
It is, as you might expect, a very nicely put together book, complete with the obligatory butterfly and double helix on the cover. It is handsomely designed, nicely printed; someone who likes books as objects took care over the work.
It is also, as you would certainly expect, full of smart interesting stuff, with an interesting structural conceit, breaking down the world of science writing to questions of what scientists study, who they are, what they think (sadly not what is to my mind the more important question: how they think), and what delights them.
All good so far, you might say, and you’d be right. So what’s the complaint implied by this post’s title.
There are two of them, in fact, one parochial, one global to the project.
The bigger one first. It is amazing how limited a view of what science investigates is on display here.
Dawkins has selected 83 pieces as the exemplars of the best of modern science writing. Maybe he can defend those choices against all comers on his judgment of quality — but still it is extraordinary how narrow a perception of science any member of the public seeking to be informed would get from this collection — not entirely, but almost completely confined to cosmology and related areas of physics, and evolutionary biology, with a certain additional emphasis on the biology of brain, mind and consciousness.
The first section, on what scientists study, begins with two selections from physicists — James Jeans and Martin Rees. Next up one brief piece that straddles the overlap between chemistry of physics at the second law of thermodynamics by a chemist, Peter Atkins. Then ten samples from the world of evolution, followed by four centered on brain/mind questions, then back to biology in a selection of eight pieces the orbit around questions of evolution, ecology and animal behavior.
That’s it. That’s what scientists study, according to Dawkins – or at least that’s what literate scientists have written about at a level of craft sufficient to meet Dawkins’ aesthetic as well as intellectual criteria.
It goes on in much the same way through the other sections of the book. You get the usual suspects — Einstein a couple of times, Medawar (of course — how could you leave him out, and this is no snark; anyone who has not had the pleasure should start here or here or here…you can thank me later) Eddington, Hardy, Gould and Sagan. So it goes. Given a very few prompts it would probably be possible to reconstruct the list of Dawkins choices with quite high accuracy, sight unseen.
But even within Dawkins primary constraint (to be briefly snarked below), what of most chemistry — arguably the single most significant science in the last century in its impact on human well being? It’s not as if nothing has been written about chemistry for the public — and at a high level too. Try one of the best unknown books of science writing out there, Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffman’s The Same and Not the Same? What about even a nod towards modern geology, in the context of plate tectonics, one of the most consequential public paradigm shifts in all of twentieth century (will all due with apologies to the quantum revolution and the double helix. It would have been possible (were it not for Dawkins other tic) to select from one of the works of John McPhee to get at least a hint of the significance of the discovery that continents and their sub-assemblies roam the globe over deep time.
And so on. So much of what scientists study is a closed book to Oxford, Dawkins, and any readers of this handsome volume.
I’m not saying don’t buy this book. Within its narrow limits, it is a wonderful collection. If it is a bit predictable (how many times has Haldane’s genuinely excellent essay, “On Being the Right Size” shown up in one collection or another?* And Einstein’s worthy statement on cosmic religious feeling has seen a fair bit of wear too…) it still has a lot of goodies to enjoy. But no one should mistake this for anything more than one very constricted view of what constitutes excellence in the craft of bringing to the public the good news of science and lives spent in its pursuit.
I’ll save my other peeve with the book (which I think I’ve telegraphed, rather) for another post this week. As one more blatant hint, let me simply say that I would not think much of a book collecting modern writing about sports that confined itself to athlete’s writing. Can you imagine a baseball section without Roger Angell for example, and if the tennis selections didn’t include at least on passage from this by John McPhee, you’d know you were wasting your time. .You can probably figure out the rest from there.
Image: Map of Pangaea — the supercontinent that incorporated most of the Earth’s landmasses between 300 and 180 million years before present. Licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation license, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation.