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The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing
The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing

Oxford University Press, 2008
419 pp., 33.8

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Karl W. Giberson


No Science, Please

We're evangelical.

People who write obscurely are either unskilled in writing or up to mischief.
—Peter Medawar

I once helped a theologian organize a science-and-religion conference. We selected familiar topics—creation, natural theology, biblical interpretation, origin of life—and assigned them to theologians paired with scientists. We wanted to promote interdisciplinary conversation to ease widespread misunderstanding about science and religion.

The meeting unfolded with alternating presentations—religion, science, religion, science—that were strikingly different. The scientists delivered informal presentations, with visual aids, and made use of helpful analogies. Few wore ties. Biologist Darrel Falk, to take one example, created a great analogy using a multi-generational family photo album to show how pseudo-genes establish common ancestry. (The analogy went on to form the basis for chapter 6 in his acclaimed Coming to Peace with Science.) The science squad all took great pains to deliver accessible, popular-level, presentations.

The presentations of the religion scholars were quite different. There were no visual aids. Presenters read papers filled with insider jargon. They made limited eye contact with their audience. They were clearly talking to each other and not to the rest of us. They were also, for the most part, boring. And they all wore ties.

What was going on here? Religion scholars are the caretakers of our most precious knowledge, and yet they seemed lost when asked to share that knowledge with people outside their field. Why were their presentations so different from those of their counterparts from the scientific community?

I was reminded of this puzzle as I read The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, an imposing new anthology containing more than 80 examples of "good writing by professional scientists," selected and introduced by that arch-villain Richard Dawkins. Much of the writing is indeed wonderful, filled with evocative imagery, poetic prose, and profound insights into nature. Dawkins, who quarreled with his editor over including any of his own writings in the generous volume (Dawkins won), is probably the most qualified person on the planet for such a task. He is exceptional in being a member of Britain's most élite scientific and literary societies, the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature.

The Royal Society, founded in 1660, numbers Isaac Newton among its early members. Current members include such luminaries as Stephen Hawking, James Watson, and John Polkinghorne. The Royal Society for Literature was founded by King George IV in 1820 to "reward literary merit and excite literary talent." When Dawkins signs the roll there he uses either Charles Dickens' quill or Lord Byron's pen and rubs shoulders with the likes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, J.K. Rowling, and Umberto Eco. Very few scientists have been members of the Royal Society for Literature. This may make sense, as works of science are rarely classified as works of literature; and certainly scientists, who write more or less recreationally, dress like janitors, and have demanding day jobs in laboratories, are not likely to create that rarefied product called "Literature."

As C.P. Snow observed in his famous "Two Cultures" essay, a great gulf divides the traditional intellectual, who tends to be literary, and the scientist, who often is not. They live on separate planets, so to speak, and take very different courses in high school. They are readily distinguished by which section of the SAT they think is irrelevant. They may simply be unaware of each other—unless, as was the case with Dawkins, eloquent and provocative bestsellers put a scientist's name on the bestseller lists, where it can't help but get noticed, even by literati who might wonder what it is doing there.

The unsolved mysteries of the rain forest are formless and seductive. They are like unnamed islands hidden in the blank spaces of old maps, like dark shapes glimpsed descending the far wall of a reef into the abyss. They draw us forward and stir strange apprehensions. The unknown and prodigious are drugs to the scientific imagination, stirring insatiable hunger with a single taste. In our hearts we hope we will never discover everything.
—E. O. Wilson

Literature—plays, essays, screenplays for movies, novels, nonfiction—has to be about something. "Literature" has no natural content any more than sentences have natural meaning. So why isn't there more "science" in literature? Science transforms both our world and our worldview, and yet a solid work of literature is more likely to be about an alcoholic than a scientist. Why are movies with science themes—movies like Contact and Lorenzo's Oil—so rare? Yes, of course, there are plenty of thrillers that incorporate science in the vein of Jurassic Park, often with dire warnings about the dangers of scientific hubris. At the other extreme are those pious biopics of yore: Paul Muni in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), for example. But why so few meaty films with first-rate talent devoted to the "insatiable hunger" E. O. Wilson invokes?

Imagine, for example, Robert de Niro as Galileo—arrogant, brilliant, bewitched by his emerging place in history—being summoned by the Inquisition to appear in Rome. Picture Galileo's enemies—small, slimy characters that look like Steve Buscemi— convincing the Pope that he had been lampooned in Galileo's play about the motion of the heavens. Imagine the Pope—Al Pacino—finally agreeing after much agonizing to put his old friend on trial.

Picture Darwin, played by Anthony Hopkins. Here is a proper and subdued Victorian, who considered becoming a priest, wrestling with an emerging conviction that the traditional idea of creation must be abandoned. His wife Emma—played by any of those beautiful but not sexy British actresses, some of whom are even named Emma—is distraught, as her beloved Charles slowly loses his Christian convictions. She is haunted by visions of spending eternity without her husband. When their daughter Annie dies at age ten, Charles finally abandons his now-shaky childhood faith, the denouement of what is surely one of the most symbolic religious struggles in Western history. PBS dramatized Darwin's deconversion in a series on evolution and, although it was just a vignette in a documentary and lacked Anthony Hopkins, it was riveting.

James A. Connor's Kepler's Witch is a biography of the great astronomer set against the backdrop of Europe's witch-hunting craze and the Thirty Years' War. It is another extraordinary tale begging to be told. Picture Johnny Depp in the role of the clumsy, inarticulate, but brilliant astronomer, demolishing trumped-up accusations of witchcraft made against his mother while slowly coming to believe that the planetary orbits were very different from what had been taught for centuries.

Why is it that Hollywood can bring to life historical characters like John Adams, Queen Elizabeth, Howard Hughes, and even Truman Capote, while equally fascinating figures from science get, at most, low-budget PBS treatments? Richard Feynman's contribution to Oxford anthology suggests one answer: "It is odd" he writes, "but on the infrequent occasions when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics. I believe that is probably because we respect the arts more than the sciences." The context—missing in the anthology excerpt—is that when he was lecturing to general audiences about physics, introducers would often note that Feynman—alongside his scientific pursuits—loved to play the bongo drums. Whether that contrast suggests, as Feynman himself thought, that "we respect the arts more than the sciences" is open to question. Indeed, it might well be that introducers of Feynman the physicist regarded him with something approaching awe and hoped to "humanize" him in the eyes of the audience. But even an exaggerated respect can result in the partitioning off of science from the common conversation of the culture.

The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.
—Carl Sagan

All right, all right, I admit that the situation isn't as bleak as I have been painting it. There are counter-trends. Speaking of painting, the visual arts across the board have taken up science with a passion. Books by scientists who can write for a general audience have certainly been more influential in the culture at large over the last decade than books based in the intellectual world of the humanities, and the very existence of this new volume from Oxford testifies to science's prestige.

The anthology is divided into four parts: What Scientists Study; Who Scientists Are; What Scientists Think; and What Scientists Admire. Scientists study lots of things, of course. But one thing they study is us, and those insights deserve particular attention—the kind of attention topics get when artists pick them up and make them interesting. Helena Cronin, in an excerpt from The Ant and the Peacock, writes: "We are walking archives of ancestral wisdom. Our bodies and minds are live monuments to our forebears rare successes." This is a deep insight that tells us so much about ourselves, and we ignore it at our peril. In this and other selections, we learn that human beings evolved to live in community, in extended "families." We are tribal creatures, profoundly unsuited to the suburban isolation we often seek for ourselves, separated from our families by hundreds of miles, in minimal contact with nature.

Talk about our deep history as a species quickly leads to controversy. Which brings me to a striking feature of this anthology.

The front of the dust jacket features the editor's name in huge letters, larger than the title. Obviously someone in the marketing department at Oxford University Press thinks that Richard Dawkins' name has more cash value than the topic itself. Dawkins, of course, is notorious among Christians and beloved among atheists for his assaults on religious belief, put forward most recently in his 2007 bestseller The God Delusion. The snippets from his many books quoted by his religiously minded critics—like Phillip Johnson in Reason in the Balance, for instance, or even me in Oracles of Science—have established his role as a relentless crusader against religion. But oddly, Dawkins the crusading atheist is nowhere in sight in this volume. Not one of the selections is a rant against belief in God or a snide exposition of the superiority of the scientific way of knowing. None of the selections bash creationism or intelligent design. And, if the choice of the selections was guided by some more subtle agenda intended to undermine religion, the strategy was lost on me.

Dawkins wrote brief introductions to all 84 pieces, but not once did he take advantage of the many opportunities to sneer at religion. Several excerpts in the anthology bring to life great discoveries relating to evolution and big bang cosmology—discoveries that that have been strongly resisted by fundamentalists. But Dawkins introduces them as a part of the grand adventure of science, not the inevitable displacement of traditional religious views on origins. Russell Stannard, a Christian physicist who has been very critical of Dawkins, could have been introduced with a potshot, but all we get is a sense that Dawkins thinks that Stannard's "Uncle Albert" series is a delightful way to wrestle with the complex and counterintuitive ideas of relativity.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not suggesting that Dawkins has had a change of heart. But in this volume we see another side of the man: the Dawkins who loves science passionately, who marvels at what it teaches us about the nature of things, and who is exceptionally skillful at conveying those findings to the general reader. Though he would hate the description, this Dawkins reveals something of the nature of his Creator. And if it's true that he has done his share to perpetuate misconceptions about the supposed incompatibility of science and faith, he's had plenty of help from the other side.

Two centuries after evidence began to mount up that the earth is ancient, Christian bookstores feature titles arguing that all this science is wrong. A hundred and fifty years after Darwin, many evangelicals continue to reject evolution, even as data from the genome project establishes the near certainty of Darwin's central idea of common ancestry. Young Earth creationists reject definitive evidence for the big bang theory.

Many evangelical scientists have encountered great hostility when they have tried to help their fellow Christians come to terms with controversial scientific ideas. Richard Colling has been on the hot seat at Olivet Nazarene University for over a year because some powerful fundamentalists don't like his acceptance of evolution. Darrel Falk encountered similar problems in the 1990s. Howard Van Till fought this battle for years at Calvin College and finally left his faith tradition altogether. And so it goes. (I have experienced a bit of this myself since the publication of Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution.) The sad truth is that science writers in the evangelical world are discouraged from plying their craft. Those of us who teach at Christian colleges write with the knowledge that our books may get us fired.

The Oxford anthology has only one contribution by an identifiable evangelical, Russell Stannard, and he is British. This is disappointing but is not, I think, the result of any untoward editorial selection process. America has a population of evangelicals larger than any country in Europe. There are more than 200 evangelical schools with science divisions. And yet we don't have a single science writer with the stature to get included in this volume. (There is one exception: Francis Collins would be a candidate for inclusion, but, given how recently he has emerged as an important science writer, it is easy to see how he did not make the lineup.) Shame on us.

Men, troubled at last by the things they build, may toss in their sleep and dream bad dreams, or lie awake while the meteors whisper greenly overhead. But nowhere in all space or on a thousand worlds will there be men to share our loneliness.
—Loren Eiseley

Cultural ambassadors from the scientific community have brought many interesting messages over the years. Some, like the revolutions of Galileo and Darwin, have been troubling. The atomic bomb was terrifying. Others were simply interesting, like continental drift or the origin of the seasons. But many have been wondrous and magical, like lightening rods, inoculation against disease, electricity, anaesthesia, and countless other advances that have made our lives so much easier, so much longer, and filled with the laughter of so many of our loved ones who were not routinely struck down by childhood diseases.

As I write these words, Larry Kudlow is pleading on CNBC that we let the free markets solve our energy crisis by lifting restrictions on where we can drill for oil. His perspective is informed by a century of progress on many fronts, progress now threatened by declining supplies of what once looked liked endless supplies of energy. It is easy to forget that it took nature millions of years to create this oil; our horizons for its consumption need to be longer than a few decades. We struggle to understand what it means to live on a planet at the midpoint of its ten-million-year projected lifetime—a planet with limited resources.

Many of our greatest scientists have tried to communicate this, with limited success. Perhaps the most eloquent was Carl Sagan, whose extraordinary vision seemed always to encompass the earth as a whole—the "pale blue dot," as he called it. Sagan asks us to think of the earth as a dot floating in space, like a mote of airborne dust in your living room made visible by a sunbeam. And on this "very small stage in a vast cosmic arena" we spill rivers of blood as deluded leaders seek to be momentary masters of a fraction of this dot. The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing concludes with these words from Sagan, probably the greatest science writer of all time: "It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

Karl W. Giberson is the author of four books on science and religion, the most recent of which is Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (HarperOne). He is currently developing a science writing program at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

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