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Other titles in the Best American Science & Nature Writing series:
The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2003 (Best American Science & Nature Writing)by Richard Dawkins
In introducing this anthology of American scientific writing I invoke two recently dead heroes, one a scientist and American, the other a writer, not trained in science and not from America but a lover of both. Carl Sagan gave one of his last books the characteristically memorable subtitle Science as a Candle in the Dark. Douglas Adams chose to study English literature at Cambridge, but he explained to me, in a televised conversation in 1997, that his reading habits have now changed: I think I read much more science than novels. I think the role of the novel has changed a little bit. In the nineteenth century the novel was where you went to get your serious reflections and questionings about life. Youd go to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Nowadays, of course, you know the scientists actually tell us much, much more about such issues than you would ever get from novelists. So I think for the real solid red meat of what I read I go to science books, and read some novels as light relief.” Even while listening to him, I reflected on my frustration, going into bookshops and trying to find scientific books. If there is a science section at all, it is dwarfed not only by fiction, history, biography, self-help,” cookery, and gardening, but also by new age,” occult,” and religion. It has become a commonplace that astrology books outsell astronomy by a large margin.
Turning back to Adams, I asked him, What is it about science that really gets your blood running?” and he replied: The world is a thing of utter inordinate complexity and richness and strange- ness that is absolutely awesome. I mean, the idea that such complexity can arise not only out of such simplicity but probably absolutely out of nothing is the most fabulous, extraordinary idea. And once you get some kind of inkling of how that might have happened — its just wonderful. And I feel, you know, that the opportunity to spend seventy or eighty years of your life in such a universe is time well spent as far as I am concerned!” Carl Sagan obviously shared those sentiments and devoted much of his career to expounding them, but The Demon-Haunted World, whose subtitle I quoted, has a darker theme. The darkness of ignorance breeds fear. In the words of a prayer which I early learned from my Cornish grandmother,
From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties And things that go bump in the night Good Lord deliver us.
Some say it is Scottish, not Cornish, but the sentiments are anyway worldwide. People are afraid of the dark. Science, as Sagan argued and personally exemplifled, has the power to reduce ignorance and dispel fear. We should all read science and learn to think like scientists, not because science is useful (though it is), but because the light of knowledge is wonderful and banishes the debilitating and time-wasting fear of the dark. That uncompromisingly articulate chemist Peter Atkins has a utopian vision of a scientifically enlightened world which I share: When we have dealt with the values of the fundamental constants by seeing that they are unavoidably so, and have dismissed them as irrelevant, we shall have arrived at complete understanding. Fundamental science can then rest. We are almost there. Complete knowledge is within our grasp. Comprehension is moving across the face of the Earth, like the sunrise.” Unfortunately, science arouses fears of its own, usually because of a confusion with technology. Even technology is not inherently frightening, but it can, of course, do bad things as well as good. If you want to do good, or if you want to do bad, science will provide the most effective way in either case. The trick is to choose the good rather than the bad, and what I fear is the judgment of those to whom society delegates that choice.
Science is the systematic method by which we apprehend what is true about the real world in which we live. If you want consolation, or an ethical guide to the good life, you can look elsewhere (and may be disappointed). But if you want to know what is true about reality, science is the only way. If there were a better way, science would embrace it.
Science can be seen as a sophisticated extension of the sense organs nature gave us. Properly used, the worldwide cooperative enterprise of science works like a telescope pointing toward reality; or, turned around, a microscope to dissect details and analyze causes. So understood, science is fundamentally a benign force, even though the technology that it spawns is powerful enough to be dangerous when abused. Ignorance of science can never be a good thing, and scientists have a paramount duty to explain their subject and make it as simple as possible (though no simpler, as Einsteein rightly insisted).
Ignorance is usually a passive state, seldom deliberately sought or intrinsically blameworthy. Unfortunately, there do seem to be some people who positively prefer ignorance and resent being told the truth. Michael Shermer, debonair editor and proprietor of Skeptic magazine, tells of the audience reaction when he unmasked a professional charlatan onstage. Far from showing Shermer the gratitude he deserved for exposing a fake who was conning them, the audience was hostile. One woman glared at me and told me it was inappropriate to destroy these peoples hopes during their time of grief.” Admittedly, this particular phonys claim was to communicate with the dead, so the bereaved may have had special reasons for resenting a scientific debunker. But Shermers experience is typical of a more general mood of protective affection for ignorance. Far from being seen as a candle in the dark, or as a wonderful source of poetic inspiration, science is too often decried as poetrys spoilsport.
A more snobbish denigration of science can be found in some, but by no means all, literary circles. Scientism” is as dirty a word as any in todays intellectual lexicon. Scientific explanations that have the virtue of simplicity are derided as simplistic.” Obscurity is often mistaken for profundity; simple clarity can be taken for arrogance. Analytical minds are denigrated as reductionist” — as with sin,” we may not know what it means, but we do know that we are against it. The Nobel Prizewinning immunologist and polymath Peter Medawar, not a man to suffer fools gladly, remarked that reductive analysis is the most successful research stratagem ever devised,” and continued: Some resent the whole idea of elucidating any entity or state of affairs that would otherwise have continued to languish in a familiar and nonthreatening squalor of incomprehension.” Nonscientific ways of thinking — intuitive, sensitive, imaginative (as if science were not imaginative!) — are thought by some to have a built-in superiority over cold, austere, scientific reason.” Heres Medawar again, this time in his celebrated lecture Science and Literature”: The official Romantic view is that Reason and the Imagination are antithetical, or at best that they provide alternative pathways leading to the truth, the pathway of Reason being long and winding and stopping short of the summit, so that while Reason is breathing heavily there is Imagination capering lightly up the hill.” Medawar goes on to point out that this view was even once supported by scientists themselves. Newton claimed to make no hypotheses, and scientists generally were supposed to employ a calculus of discovery, a formulary of intellectual behaviour which could be relied upon to conduct the scientist towards the truth, and this new calculus was thought of almost as an antidote to the imagination.” Medawars own view, inherited from his personal guru” Karl Popper and shared by most scientists today, was that imagination is seminal to all science but is tempered by critical testing against the real world. Creative imagination and critical rigor are both to be found in this collection of contemporary American scientific literature.
For a non-American to be invited by a leading American publisher to anthologize American writings about science is an honor, the more so because American science is, by almost any index one could conjure, preeminent in the world. Whether we measure the money spent on research or count the numbers of active scientists working, of books and journal articles published, or of major prizes won, the United States leads the rest of the world by a convincing margin. My admiration for American science is so enthusiastic, so downright grateful, that I hope I may not be thought presumptuous if I sound a note of discordant warning. American science leads the world, but so does American anti-science. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in my own field of evolution.
Evolution is one of the most securely established facts in all science. The knowledge that we are cousins to apes, kangaroos, and bacteria is beyond all educated doubt: as certain as our (once doubted) knowledge that the planets orbit the sun, and that South America was once joined to Africa, and India distant from Asia. Particularly secure is the fact that lifes evolution began a matter of billions of years ago. And yet, if polls are to be believed, approximately 45 percent of the population of the United States firmly believes, to the contrary, an elementary falsehood: all species separately owe their existence to intelligent design” less than ten thousand years ago. Worse, the nature of American democratic institutions is such that this perversely ignorant half of the population (which does not, I hasten to add, include leading churchmen or leading scholars in any discipline) is in many districts strongly placed to influence local educational policy. I have met biology teachers in various states who feel physically intimidated from teaching the central theorem of their subject. Even reputable publishers have felt sufficiently threatened to censor school textbooks of biology.
That 45 percent figure really is something of a national educational disgrace. Youd have to travel right past Europe to the theocratic societies around the Middle East before you hit a comparable level of antiscientific miseducation. It is bafflingly paradoxical that the United States is by far the worlds leading scientific nation while simultaneously housing the most scientifically illiterate populace outside the Third World.
Sputnik, the Russian satellite launched in 1957, was widely seen as a salutary lesson, spurring the United States out of complacency and into redoubled educational efforts in science. Those efforts paid off spectacularly, for example, in the dazzling successes of the space program and the Human Genome Project. But more than forty years have passed since Sputnik, and I am not the only Americophile to suggest that another such fright may be needed. Short of that — well, in any case — we need excellent scientific writing for a general audience. Fortunately that high-quality commodity is in abundant supply in America, which has made the compiling of this anthology both easy and a pleasure. The only difficulty, indeed the only pain, has been in deciding what to leave out.
Should a collection such as this be timely or timeless? Topical and of-the-moment? Or sub specie aeternitatis? I think both. On the one hand, the volume is one of a series, tied to a particular year, sandwiched between predecessors and successors. That nudges us in the direction of topicality: what are the hot scientific subjects of 2003; what are the current political and social issues that scientific writings of the previous year might illuminate? On the other hand, sciences ambitions — more so, I venture, than any other disciplines — approach the timeless, even the eternal. Laws of nature that changed from year to year, or even from eon to eon, would seem too parochial to deserve the name. Of course our understanding of natural law changes — for the better — from decade to decade, but that is another matter. And, within the unchanging laws of the universe, their physical manifestations change, on time scales spanning gigayears to femtoseconds.
Biology, like physics, anchors itself in uniformitarianism. Its defining engine — evolution — is change, change par excellence. But evolution is the same kind of change now as it was in the Cretaceous, and as it will be in all futures we can imagine. The plays the same, though the players that walk the stage are different. Their costumes are similar enough to connect, say, triceratops with rhinoceros, or allosaurus with tiger, in ecological continuity. If an ecologist, a physiologist, a biochemist, and a geneticist were to mount an expedition to the Cretaceous or the Carboniferous, their 2003-vintage skills and education would serve them almost as well as if they were going to, say, Madagascar today. DNA is DNA, proteins are proteins. They and their interactions change only trivially. The principles of Darwinian natural selection, of Mendelian and molecular genetics, of physiology and ecology, the laws of island biogeography, all these surely applied to dinosaurs, and before them to mammal-like reptiles, just as they apply now to birds and modern mammals. They will still apply in a hundred million years time, when we are extinct and new faunistic players have taken the stage. The leg muscles of a tyrannosaur in hot-breathed pursuit were fueled by ATP such as any modern biochemist would recognize, charged up by Krebs cycles indistinguishable from the Krebs cycles of today. The science of life doesnt change from eon to eon, even if life itself does.
So far, so timeless. But we live in 2003. Our lives are measured in decades and our psychological horizons crammed somewhere between seconds and centuries, seldom reaching further. Sciences laws and principles may be timeless, but science bears mightily upon our fleeting selves. The science and nature writing of 2002 is not the same as it was ten years ago, partly because we now know more about what is eternally true, but also because the world in which we live changes, and so does sciences impact upon it. Some of the essays and articles in this book are firmly date- stamped; some are timeless. We need both.
Nature writing perennially returns to the theme of conservation and extinction. Of all arguments in favor of preserving species from extinction, I am moved more by aesthetic sentiment than by utilitarian advocacies of the You never know whether something in the rain forest might eventually turn out to be useful to humanity” kind. But aesthetic isnt a big enough word, nor is sentiment. Douglas Adamss Professor Chronotis used his time machine for only one regular purpose: he would visit pre-seventeenth-century Mauritius, weep over the dodo, and return. The sense of irreparable loss — grief — our descendants will feel for elephants and whales brings todays imagination up short. Today we are still privileged to watch these great creatures, dodos for future generations to weep over. And we are still finding out new and extraordinary things about them, as Four Ears to the Ground” and Fat Heads Sink Ships” both show.
My personal dodo has long been the marsupial Thylacinus, often irritatingly called the Tasmanian tiger — irritatingly because it was much more like a dog (with a few stripes across the rump). I once wrote of it, To any dog-lover, the contemplation of this alternative approach to the dog design, this evolutionary traveller along a parallel road separated by 100 million years, this part familiar yet part utterly alien other-worldly dog, is a moving experience. Maybe they were pests to humans, but humans were much bigger pests to them; now there are no thylacines left and a considerable surplus of humans.” It is too late for the dodo, but Raising the Dead” airs the faint hope (it may never reach the status of an expectation) of one day bringing Thylacinus back from the dead by cloning DNA from pickled museum specimens.
I once had the good fortune to spend two weeks in a tropical research center in Panama with my senior colleague and friend, the zoologist John Maynard Smith. We were being shown round by a young researcher whose enthusiasm moved Maynard Smith to whisper to me: What a pleasure to listen to a man who really loves his animals.” The animals” in question were various species of palm tree. I was reminded of this when reading Terminal Ice.” It is all about men who love their animals, but their animals are icebergs. The article ends more grimly on what todays icebergs may be telling us about our globally warmed future. Complementing this article, Ice Memory” tells how cores taken from glaciers constitute a sensitive record of climate changes of the past, perhaps foreshadowing an even grimmer future unconnected with global warming.
In my choice, I have been mindful that North Americas natural heritage is perhaps the richest and most beautiful in the temperate world. It is also under threat from powerful interests more concerned with commercial exploitation than science, or beauty, or anything that we might recognize as civilized values at all. I do not, therefore apologize for including, among the natural history articles, some with a political agenda. These include Maines War on Coyotes” — and, by the way, on the subject of coyotophilia, I am sorry it was not possible to include extensive passages from Barbara Kingsolvers beautiful novel Prodigal Summer. Sounding the Alarm” is a remembrance of the prophet Rachel Carson, and The Bottleneck” a similar warning for our times from Edward O. Wilson.
Wilson is a scientific prophet if ever there was one, and I have also included a biographical piece representing him as a latter-day Thoreau, Finding a Wild, Fearsome World Beneath Every Fallen Leaf.” As another matched pair — article with biography of its author — I offer The Fully Immersive Mind of Oliver Sacks” paired with Sacks himself on a slightly unexpected subject, Anybody Out There?” The same theme, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, is treated rather differently by Tim Appenzeller in At Home in the Heavens.” That title is a possibly unconscious allusion to Stuart Kauffmans otherwise very different At Home in the Universe, which in turn has weaker resonances with Timothy Ferriss Coming of Age in the Milky Way. Ferris himself is represented here by Astronomys New Stars,” in praise of amateur astronomers. The Very Best Telescope” pleases me because it presents a technical innovation as the solution to a problem: always my strategy when explaining the design of natural instruments such as eyes and echolocation systems. A New View of Our Universe” reaches the philosophical — some would say theological — cutting edge of cosmology. Is the universe not only our home but tailor-made for the task?
From theology sublime to theology mundane, False Testament” reveals no great surprises, but the details are fascinating to those of us raised in a Judeo-Christian culture, and perhaps instructive, even salutary, to the benighted 45 percent that I mentioned earlier. Another archaeological piece is Treasure Under Saddams Feet.” The dam that would flood these priceless antiquities to oblivion is due for completion in 2007. Might a halt to the damming plans turn out to be an unexpected benefit of war? I doubt it. In any case, war arouses greater fears for Iraqs other treasures, which rival those of Greece and Egypt in their archaeological importance.
How closely related are you to me? Probably closer than you think. My guess is based on the mathematics of Joseph Chang, discussed in The Royal We.” Most people have a natural curiosity about their ancestral past, and genetics is starting to develop methods to satisfy it, along with our sometimes morbid curiosity about our individual futures, as David Ewing Duncan discovers in DNA as Destiny.” Incidentally, those fearful that genetics may teach them too much about their own inexorable fates might take comfort from something we have known all along: identical twins dont habitually die on the same day. But how fated are we by our genes when it comes to abilities and talents? Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate,” brings his customary acumen and style to dispelling the many misunderstandings that surround this question.
Pinker is identified with evolutionary psychology, one of those names — another being behavioral ecology — now used as a euphemism for what used to be called sociobiology. Natalie Angiers Weighing the Grandma Factor” is a second piece in a genre that is regarded by some, for reasons that I understand but deny, as politically controversial. Theres no denying, however, the controversy in some of the pieces I have chosen on scientific approaches to political or social questions. Steven Weinberg is one of the worlds most distinguished physicists, and his The Truth About Missile Defense” is an important document that should (but probably wont) be studied by politicians up to the highest level. Lawyers and judges should pay similar attention to Elizabeth Loftuss Memory Faults and Fixes.” Dr. Loftus is another scientific hero, whose courageous — and how sad that courage should be necessary — testimony on the sometimes inadvertent but more usually deliberate implanting of false memories has saved a significant number of innocent people from the current Salem-like hysteria over pedophilia.
Embryo Police” is an American view of an institution that exerts considerable power in my own country, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA). A famous case handled by the HFEA is that of Diane Blood, a young woman who tragically lost her husband to meningitis in 1995. While he was on a life support system, before his death, she persuaded the doctors to extract and freeze some of his sperm so that she might have his baby as they had always planned. The doctors obliged, but the HFEA subsequently denied her permission to undergo the in vitro fertilization on the grounds that her husband, in his terminal coma, could not give his written consent. After fighting them in the courts for years, Mrs. Blood was eventually allowed to take her husbands sperm abroad, and a European IVF clinic eventually gave her beloved husband two posthumous sons. She had to fight again to amend their birth certificates so their father was recorded as Stephen Blood” rather than Unknown.” Perhaps unfairly, some might see Mrs. Bloods case as a cautionary tale from Britain for America, about the grief that can arise when lawyers and moralistic busybodies are given a license to poke their noses into private matters.
Diet is a political as well as a scientific issue, increasingly so as the epidemic of obesity gathers pace. Dr. Robert Atkinss long-running campaign to shift the blame from fats to carbohydrates is the subject of What If Its All Been a Big Fat Lie?” I am not expert enough to give an authoritative verdict, but as a dispassionate observer I think it looks as though Atkins and his followers have built up a case that is at least compelling enough to demand a clear answer from that part of the medical establishment which once ridiculed him and now sounds desperate for his findings to go away.
The treatment of women in scientific careers was, until quite recently, often horribly unjust. The exclusion of Rosalind Franklin, she whose X-ray photographs were so crucial to Watson and Cricks discovery of the double helix, from the Common Room at Kings College London, where her male colleagues could go and talk science, is infamous. I was reminded of it when I read My Mother, the Scientist,” Charles Hirshbergs touching memoir of Joan Feynman, his mother (and the sister of the famous theoretical physicist). As Hirshberg puts it, To become a scientist is hard enough. But to become one while running a gauntlet of lies, insults, mockeries, and disapproval — this was what my mother had to do. If such treatment is unthinkable (or, at least, unusual) today, it is largely because my mother and other female scientists of her generation proved equal to every obstacle thrown in their way.” In these more enlightened times, it is important to stop the pendulum overshooting the other way, such that young men find themselves at an unfair disadvantage in seeking employment in scientific or other academic work. Injustices to females in one era cannot be redressed today by injustices to males of a later era: it is a different lot of males and females! The same fallacy underlies ludicrous (and racist) demands for reparations to be paid to modern individuals with the same skin color as slaves by modern individuals with the same skin color as slaveowners.
Bill McKibbens Its Easy Being Green” begins as a hymn of praise to his new car, a hyper-economical, environment-friendly hybrid- electric model. He modulates into baffled, and I think justified, anger against those in the motor industry and government who will not admit how easy and painless it would be to free ourselves from our oil addiction” and the gas- sucking SUVs that should by all rights come with their own little Saudi flags on the hood.” Homeland Insecurity” is more technically interesting than angry, but it concerns an issue that will become ever more important to our society: how to protect information that all of us have a right to regard as private. This problem may become more controversial as we face up to government demands, in the face of the threat of terrorism, to encroach on our privacy.
The subject of terrorism brings me to my final choice, one for which I might need to offer an apology. The main talking point throughout 2002 was surely the appalling suicide attack on New York of the previous September, and it is hard to omit the topic from any collection of the years writing. But what can science say to us at such a time? No doubt technology will offer ingenious suggestions for avoiding similar manmade tragedies in the future, from reinforced cockpit doors and automatic, pilot-free landing systems to stun grenades and narcotic drugs piped through airliner ventilation systems. But, true to my more academic view of science, I have chosen A Skeptical Look at September 11th.” It is only fair to mention that not everybody shares my enthusiasm for this piece by the space scientists Clark Chapman and Alan Harris. Some colleagues, whom I respect, are unconvinced by the assumptions underlying the authors statistical estimates. Others even find the article offensive. But it seems to me that, far from downgrading the tragedy (which is the last thing anyone of goodwill wishes to do), Chapman and Harris offer constructive hope. If we all took a dose of their no-nonsense statistical common sense, bigots like bin Laden would be impotent (think of Germaine Greers robust advice to women exposed to flashers: laugh at them). America is much too powerful for tinpot thugs like bin Laden to do widespread damage. But they can do enormous psychological harm if we let them unleash an epidemic of irrational fear.
Even if you disagree with Chapman and Harriss statistical reasoning, and even if you are offended by its timing, I would like to propose their essay as a type specimen, an example of how the scientific way of thinking might influence our lives for the better, quite apart from the more familiar ways in which scientific methods of doing can benefit us in practice. Franklin D. Roosevelts famous remark The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” which Chapman and Harris predictably quote, brings me back to my beginning: Carl Sagans candle, and sciences power to banish our fears of the dark.
Copyright © 2003 by Houghton Mifﬂin Company. Introduction copyright © 2003 by Richard Dawkins. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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