Thursday, August 21, 2008

Good Science Writing

As I mentioned in a previous post, I find myself in the unprecendented situation these days of having several (very smart and relatively decent) "scientist" friends. Now, I'll readily admit that I don't know a lot about science (outside the grand philosophical tradition of scientia, that is), but I find some scientific questions eminently, sometimes frustratingly, fascinating-- like evolution, or the biological bases of the social/political categories of "gender" and "race," or why it is that when you boil an egg it gets hard but when you boil a noodle it gets soft. (Still don't really understand the answer to that last one!) Like most academics in the humanities, I don't usually get much time to indulge these interests of mine, partly because many (if not most) of the scientists I have known are difficult if not impossible to have a normal semi-human conversation with, but also because much (if not most) of the legitimate scientific literature that I have attempted to read has been so poorly-written and jargon-laden that it seemed utterly inaccessible to non-specialists.

So, it is with great pleasure that I now recommend a book that I received from a chemist colleague of mine, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science, Stephen Jay Gould. There are numerous legitimate "scientific" reasons to recommend this book, I suspect, but since I'm not a scientist and can't really measure Gould's arguments against what might be his detractors' arguments, I want to recommend it on another basis-- namely, the truly excellent prose. (In an attempt at fair and balanced coverage, I should note that Richard Dawkins, real scientist, says in his review of Gould's book : "... if only Gould could think as clearly as he writes! This is a beautifully written and deeply muddled book.") Gould's text is basically a re-examination of the Burgess Shale, a formation found in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia that hosts what Gould calls the "most precious and important of all fossil localities." The fauna preserved in the Burgess Shale, according to Gould, not only give us an unprecendented look into the otherwise mysterious workings of the Cambrian explosion of over 530 million years ago, but they also very well may upset most orthodox renderings of "evolutionary progress."

I haven't finished the book yet, but Gould's basic hypothesis is that the Burgess Shale demonstrates that "chance" is THE decisive factor in the evolution of life on earth. Chance (or "contigency") is a concept favored by we humanities folk, but mostly despised by respectable scientists, and Gould's aim is at least in part to disabuse scientists of their aversion to explanations that favor the absolutely unpredictable (and unnecessary) appearance of not only human life, but human intelligence. From Gould's introduction:

"Wind back the tape of life to the early days of the Burgess Shale; let it play again from an identical starting point, and the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human inteligence would grace the replay."

Why can't all scientists write like this??!! In my humble opinion, Gould's writing hearkens back to the days before we made crude, ham-handed and specialist-ic distinctions in the knowledge (sophia) that the genuinely inquisitive among us love (philia). In short, Wonderful Life is a book for philosophers, too, I think. This is the reason why, only halfway through at this point, this philosopher heartily recommends it to you.

1 comment:

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Dr. J,

Trying to get caught up on my blogs and finally saw this.

I will have to check out: I am more or less the lone humanist in a family of scientists and so I try to keep myself apprised of goings on in the "real sciences" and appreciate people who write well.

I would also add Erwin Schrodinger's What is Life, although any philosopher will note that his position is an unintentional version of Spinozism, with all the strengths and weaknesses thereof...

And I've been rereading The Origin of Species for a paper I've been thinking about writing and have been struck by how good the prose in it usually is.

Now if only philosophers would start writing well too!