We Can Discover the Wonders of Nature

The Best American Science Writing 2005
Alan Lightman, Guest Editor, Jesse Cohen, Series Editor

Over lunch earlier this month I floated a trial balloon past an old friend. What I’m most interested in, I asserted, is different ways of thinking. The details are a little less important, because a lot of those tend to stick and, in any case, I can always dive back in. It’s my current best explanation for the haphazard range of my reading life.

Hence the present volume,  which serves the useful purpose of bringing me back to my roots while updating me in any number of areas. If these annuals focused on the hard sciences have any drawback at all, it’s that the subject matter is forever being clarified. So, what is for me an all too common gap of almost 15 years runs the risk of containing a lot of items where the knowledge has advanced, rendering the findings less useful. But, hey, this is about reading and thinking. I don’t have to keep up with what anyone running a competitive lab is doing.

Scientists do, though, and that’s important to remember because scientists are all too human, and they live within a social structure. Rigorous methods, experimentation and sound reasoning do not automatically banish ambition, a fact Jennifer Couzin reminds us of in a tale of two researchers focused on aging. The story of David Sinclair and Leonard Guarente is as old as the hills, though we don’t often think of scientific rivalries in terms of sons seeking to displace fathers, intellectually speaking.

Bees are fascinating, but not because they are fat, slumbering, analyzing or deciding.

At the other extreme, the writer’s reputation presents the best explanation for inclusion. Diane Ackerman, best known for penning the 1990 best-seller A Natural History of the Senses,  closes the volume with a (very) short observation of a bumblebee. It harkens back, I suppose, to a certain form of writing about nature.

I’ve always struggled with the way naturalists express themselves and here, in a very brief space, Ackerman pushes all my buttons, beginning this flight of anthropomorphization in the first sentence. By what standard, I wondered, does one deem a bee fat? And do they really slumber, a word that connotes dreams and the temporary suspension of consciousness? Or is this what makes Ackerman a poet/essayist/naturalist?

The last question unpacked, opens a Pandora‘s box of social science questions, none of which I intend to address. I’ve a much simpler explanation available that fits much more neatly under the heading ‘editorial choice.’ Alan Lightman, the Guest Editor of this volume in the series, is both a theoretical physicist (Ph.D., Cal Tech, 1974) and a novelist. I can see how Ackerman’s fanciful flights appeal to a mind able to operate at such extreme ends of human imagination, it’s just not for me.

I’ve noted before that the hand of these series Guest Editors is sometimes more apparent to me than others.  This volume contains a fabulous example, displayed over a sequence of four essays that appear toward the end of the book.

Charles Darwin, 1809-1882
You’d be surprised how many different areas have appropriated and (mis?)applied his ideas.

In the first, David Quammen defends Darwin, using the theory of evolution to illustrate the scientific method. He covers a lot of ground, from how scientists use the word “theory,” to professional competitiveness (that again!) to evidence amassed in the years since Darwin first published that confirms the theory, even as the science has advanced and our understanding of evolution has deepened. I’d almost suffer the nonsense of creation science in the classroom if this essay was required reading, too.

The very next selection, by David Berlinski,  presents a dissenting view. Berlinski, a philosopher who has written on mathematics, is a defender of the intelligent design movement. That project seeks to demonstrate that a functioning, higher intelligence offers a better explanation for the universe we live in (human life included) than random, undirected processes. To make his case he focuses on evolutionary psychology.

I’ll happily admit that Berlinski’s zeroed in on an area where the application of evolutionary principles appears particularly weak. I’m no expert, but I share the view of the professor who taught my theory section in grad school: the explanations this crew offers are, in the kindest interpretation, unsatisfying when considering social realities. Berlinski wields his pen deftly to suggest that the contradictory findings and statements made on the subject illustrate what is, in fact, the overall weakness in evolutionary theory.

Sigmund Freud, 1856-1935
You can’t say he didn’t give us lots
to think about.

Hold onto your hats because Lightman isn’t done. In the very next essay Mark Solms explores the return of Freud. When I was an undergrad, old Siggy was thought well enough of to be presented as one of the revolutionary thinkers in the Western canon. Soon after, the psychopharmacology crowd, backed by fMRI studies and improved understanding of brain chemistry, took over and banished Vienna‘s pioneer to the realm of ‘near crack-pottery.’

Not so fast, says Solms, for all the kids on Ritalin and adults on SSRIs, the psychopharmacologists have never offered a comprehensive model of the mind. In a way,  they’re like electricians working on wiring house-by-house without understanding the bigger grid. And yet there is experimental evidence to suggest that Freud was not completely bonkers and making things up as he sat with his cigar in his study. He also reminds us that Freud–a doctor after all–longed for simpler, pharmacological cures.

Rosie the Robot, b. 1962
Are Rosie, Robby, R2D2, C3PO and the rest persons?

The last element of this set piece is an essay by Ellen Ullman, in which a dinner party, built around an incredibly pricey and large cut of organic beef, spurs a rumination on robot and human intelligence. It raises some provocative questions and, for me, a cautionary note. In conversation, MIT‘s Cynthia Breazeal, a researcher on social robotics says, “We have personhood because it’s granted to us by society. It’s a status granted to one another. It’s not innately tied to being a carbon-based life form.”

Wow, what a depressing worldview. Any number of theologians and philosophers would dispute the notion that personhood is granted rather than inherent. And a good editor would point out that Breazeal’s last sentence is gibberish unless her bigger program is to confer ‘personhood’ on one-celled creatures, plants, animals and robots. Honestly, I think the good professor needs to spend some more time thinking about people rather than robots

There’s lots more, here. Bioterrorism. Disease eradication. Cranes (the birds, not the mechanical devices). As a snapshot of the many ways in which scientists think, this book is a great tool.

And as I said at the outset, it’s all about reading and thinking.

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