The Things That We’ve Learnt

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004pinker_best Steven Pinker, Guest Editor; Tim Folger, Series Editor

Birds. I can’t help it, they irk me even though I love birdsong. But as creatures, unh unh. Count me out. What with their unblinking eyes and ability to poop on me from above. I just know they’re waiting to take the planet back.

Which is why I’m shamefaced to point out that the most enjoyable piece of writing in this decade-or-so old collection is for the birds. Actually, it’s about birds but, really, isn’t that the same thing?

The piece in question, entitled ‘Ask the Bird Folks,’ was drawn from The Cape Codder, a bi-weekly covering the ‘outer’ parts of Cape Cod by which I’m pretty sure they mean from the ‘elbow’ up to P’ town. (My Capely ignorance is vast as my entire acquaintance with the locale is sitting in traffic at the Bourne Bridge on my way to and from the ferry. And yet I know to not spell out the whole name of the burg at the tip of the arm. Go figure.)

There have been too many defunct businesses featured in this space recently. Thankfully, this is a going concern.

There have been too many defunct businesses featured in this space recently. Thankfully, this is a going concern.

ATBF is actually penned by one Mike O’Connor, the founder of the Bird Watcher’s General Store billed as the first birding store and located in Orleans, MA. I’ve no idea if the paper or the column are still published although there is an archive at the store’s website. So we know the store is still there.

O’Connor is an amusing writer, the kind of guy who’s quick to note that his wealth will exceed Bill Gates‘ if only everyone would throw birdseed at weddings.  In this piece he disabuses questioners of myths about birds and rice (at those weddings), takes on the subject of sea gulls and Alka Seltzer, opines on why birds might spend so much time standing on one leg and lists nearly a dozen and a half species that he doesn’t like.

I appreciated that forthright New England approach rather than the typical ‘I like all birds’ thing you tend to see. Predictably, this resident of Red Sox nation (as, I point out, is the Guest Editor) does not like blue birds because they are the state bird of New York. “Yankees live in New York.”


Let’s let the Guest Editor have his turn. Steven Pinker in 2005.

I’ve come to understand how the Guest Editor helps shape these volumes and so it’s no surprise that  this installment features more than a few language-related items. Steven Pinker, after all, burst out of the academic ghetto and into the consciousness of the reading public by writing about the neuroscience of language and cognition.

That gives him a little more latitude and so we get one of those pieces that examines a nearly universal human behavior: naming. More specifically, naming children. Here Peggy Orenstein takes us through the ebbs and flows of name popularity and the reigning theory of name fashion, first promulgated by Stanley Lieberson in the 1960s.  As proof that some topics are evergreen  I’ll just note that the day I read the Orenstein article I opened The Atlantic online to find a new piece on unusual baby names that reprises the same material.

There are  other notable items in this volume which is among the more compact in the series. Given that Pinker took on this assignment in the midst of his sudden mass-market success I can’t help  but  wonder if the demands of literary celebrity limited how much material he had time to consider for inclusion.


C.G. Jung 1875-1961 The man who gave us the introversion/extroversion polarity,synchronicity, the collective unconscious and whom, allegedly, Sigmund Freud called schmutzig.

Jonathan Rauch‘s piece  on introversion revisited familiar ground with a new twist. Austin Bunn tells the tale–and toll–of diabetes treatment before the discovery of insulin.  Similarly, Atul Gawande introduces us to one of the great innovators in 20th century medicine, a man who made more than a few now-common techniques possible. That story has what could be called an explosive ending.

You’ll find plenty more of what I would call ‘straight science,’ that is the stuff folks associate with Ira Flato, Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. There’s a  piece on the intelligence of the octopus that  has me reconsidering grilled pulpo. A fascinating look at parasites that take over the host’s intelligence. And an article on parallel universes that I’ve read twice and still don’t fully comprehend. I may not understand cosmology any better. But I’m pretty certain I get why, as people look for meaning, linear stories have more  appeal, if only because they are more easily understood.

There were a few items I’d categorize as being more social than natural science in addition to the naming and introversion pieces already mentioned. Among these are a piece on the politics of grammar.  And, perhaps most astonishingly, an article on cousin marriage.

The Hatfield clan of Hatfields-McCoys fame. For many they're an emblem of taking the famioly thing a bit too far. Photo owned by West Virgina State Archives

The Hatfield clan of Hatfields-McCoys fame.
For many they’re an emblem of taking the family thing a bit too far.
Photo owned by West Virginia State Archives

I want to dwell on that last one because it’s exactly the sort of thing we need more of–in these volumes and in general. The source alone, The American Conservative, is enough to make some readers question its veracity. Yet it stands up to scrutiny.

Consanguinity, a word I’ve taught my children, ages 4 and 7, simply means shared blood, kinship. But when it comes to marriage its closely related to exogamy and endogamy–marrying in and out of your group. Or family.

Americans, it turns out, are big fans of exogamy. So much so that the writer, Steve Sailer, points out the rate of cousin marriage in the US has been measured at 0.2%. Yet it turns out that there’s  a large swath of the planet where the prevalence is more than 1000 times that (or in excess of 20%). In some places it exceeds 50%. That swath just happens to include a bunch of places in which the US has had some recent trouble.  Don’t take my, or Sailer’s, word for it. You can see for yourself at the leading scholar on the subject’s website.  I’m not suggesting any conclusion other than such a gap is bound to lead to misunderstanding.

But the gap is a social reality and, as I like to keep reminding everyone,  Durkeim taught us that social things were facts and need to be treated as such. Even if the fact makes some people uncomfortable or leap to false conclusions.


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