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Modern Science Writing

Richard Dawkins' editorship brings a brilliant Oxford anthology to life

Robert Fulford, National Post
Published: Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, edited by Richard Dawkins

Hot and sweaty under the Ethiopian sun, the two scholars began jumping up and down like kids, hugging each other, joined in astonished happiness.

A miracle had suddenly appeared in their lives. They found, on that historic day in 1974, the fossilized remains of four-tenths of the bones of a hominid, something never seen before. She was a female, a metre tall and 3½ million years old, a precious glimpse into the African origins of humanity.

Back at their camp, colleagues shared the excitement. Donald Johanson, the paleoanthropologist who led the team, wrote a few years later: "We were sky-high. The camp was rocking with excitement. That first night we never went to bed at all." It was the greatest event in their professional lives. While they talked and talked, and drank many celebratory beers, a tape of the Beatles' Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds assaulted the night sky at full volume. So they called their discovery Lucy, the name the world has known ever since.

Johanson's account appears in the best anthology I've read in years, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, edited by Richard Dawkins. Responding to the elation around Lucy's discovery, Dawkins claims, "Any science can be like that, if you understand it properly."

That's an exaggeration that will win the heart of anyone who dreams of being a scientist. It's also typical of the romantic performance Dawkins gives as editor. He's brought together excerpts from the work of 83 writers, all of them scientists, all of them chosen for both scientific accomplishment and literary style. The pieces he's gathered have grace, wit and often something more, an ecstatic lyricism grounded in precise observation.

Although Dawkins has chosen not to include examples from his own scientific writing, he nevertheless emerges as the book's star, the mind that gives meaning to these otherwise scattered essays.

His editorial notes meander so cleverly among the disparate articles, often making brilliant connections among them, that at the end it's his intelligence and enthusiasm that we remember above all.

Dawkins picks excerpts from many books whose audiences reached far beyond the usual world of science -- Stephen Hawking is here and Carl Sagan, Rachel Carson and Oliver Sacks, Lewis Thomas and C. P. Snow, along with a dozen or so other best-sellers and many comparatively obscure practitioners.

Surprisingly, a kind of unity appears. Normally we think of these writers as individuals and read them in isolation. Each achieves a reputation without much reference to others. But Dawkins does something that anthologists rarely manage. He makes us see familiar contents in a fresh way. In his hands these scientist-authors begin to look like a significant branch of literature on their own.

Last year Dawkins won the Lewis Thomas Prize, named for the American medical doctor ("the father of modern immunology") who wrote The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher and other excellent books. The prize recognizes scientists whose writing provides "not merely new information but cause for reflection, even revelation, as in a poem or a painting."

Lewis Thomas took the 16th-century essays of Michel de Montaigne as his model and wrote detailed accounts of scientific phenomena, sometimes personally inflected. He paused now and then to consider his own profession, as when he compared the activity of termite nests to medical conventions, finding termite collaboration more efficient.

Dawkins prints a Thomas essay that describes the way children learn to speak as one of the persistent wonders of the world. "Language," Thomas says, "is what childhood is for." Thomas's spirit makes many unseen appearances elsewhere in the book, guiding his longtime admirer, Dawkins.

Like any other literary movement, the authors selected by Dawkins reveal themselves now and then as part of nature, notably the red-in-tooth-and-claw part. Dawkins delights in reprinting what he calls the greatest negative book review ever written, Sir Peter Medawar's curt dismissal of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's once-fashionable The Phenomenon of Man, with its "feeble argument, abominably expressed," and its "prose-poetry which is one of the more tiresome manifestations of the French spirit."

James Watson, who shared the Nobel Prize for crucial work on DNA, offers free advice to would-be scientists or anyone else: Never be the brightest person in a room; you remain alive only if challenged by superior minds. This selection from his memoir, Avoid Boring People, cites Linus Pauling as a man who suffered from being thought wise, by himself and others. After winning Nobels for both chemistry and peace advocacy, he came to expect adoration, not criticism. Conversations in his late years became monologues instead of dialogues.

Dawkins, for his part, doesn't hesitate to mention his own love-hate relationship with the late Stephen Jay Gould, a distinguished but controversial paleontologist, superbly represented here. Dawkins reprints work by Fred Hoyle, a brilliant astrophysicist, but feels called upon to recall Hoyle's eccentric late-in-life campaign against Darwinism, which involved accusing Charles Darwin of fraud.

As one would expect in any Dawkins book, Darwin hovers silently over the whole project, the one giant whose heroic stature no one in these pages questions. Lee Smolin of the University of Waterloo, represented by a speculative article in theoretical physics, wins Dawkins' highest praise: "gloriously Darwinian."

It's a pleasure to re-encounter favourite passages, like Hawking's prediction that even solving the key questions in physics will still leave us wondering about an even greater problem: "Why does the universe go to all the trouble of existing" -- and, if there is a creator, "who created him?" (A dangerous point for Dawkins, the pope of atheism.)

I was more grateful to learn about scientists new to me, such as Richard Fortey, the paleontologist, who writes of the prehistoric trilobites, the only creatures with eyes made out of transparent stone. Somehow we believe that (as Dawkins says) Fortey loves his trilobites, creatures he's of course never seen.

One new favourite of mine is John Tyler Bonner, who begins strikingly: "I have devoted my life to slime moulds." While admitting that these social amoebas (used for studying evolution) sound revolting, he insists that when grown in a petri dish and examined under a microscope, they are no less than "a sight of great beauty." Influenced by the general euphoria of Dawkins's book, I found myself believing him.