A Review of: The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing

A review by Jerry A. Coyne

Richard Dawkins’s new collection of delectable prose, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, is less an anthology of set pieces than a treasury: a series of short titbits designed to pique the reader’s appetite, helping him to decide which science writers to investigate more deeply. It enables you to sample eighty-three selections by seventy-nine writers – physicists, geologists, mathematicians, chemists and, of course, evolutionary biologists. Unlike its main competitor, the estimable Faber Book of Science (2005), this collection confines itself to writing by scientists rather than journalists, is limited to works produced after 1900, has shorter pieces (an average of four pages each), and, with the exception of Primo Levi’s famous essay on carbon, presents only material composed in English.

Dawkins stays pretty much behind the curtain here, limiting his own glosses to a one-page general introduction and a short but informative preface to each piece (he modestly omits his own published work). Nevertheless, his eye is impeccable. You’ll find all your old favourites—Stephen Jay Gould, Steve Jones, Steven Pinker, Lewis Wolpert and Oliver Sacks. Within each oeuvre the choice is equally judicious. Among all of Gould’s wonderful essays, for example, Dawkins has selected the best, an analysis of Darwin’s work on earthworms—an ineffably beautiful treatment of a mundane subject.

There are many delightful snippets by famous scientists who are less well known to the public. In “On Being the Right Size”, the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane examines the many ways that animals and their evolution are constrained by their dimensions. Niko Tinbergen, Nobel laureate, animal behaviourist and Dawkins’s own PhD supervisor, describes his studies on how wasps find their nests, in prose as gripping as you’ll find in any novel. Another Nobelist, Steven Weinberg, waxes equally lyrical when explaining what physicists mean by a “beautiful” theory. And here is Richard Fortey on the now extinct trilobites, the only animal whose eyes were made of the mineral calcite: “The trilobite saw the submarine world with eyes tessellated into a mosaic of calcified lenses; unlike the dead seafarer, his stony eyes read the world through the medium of the living rock”.

In the book’s high spot, the neuropsychologist Richard Gregory explains why mirrors reverse left and right but not up and down. This question, which at first seems ridiculous, is actually not so simple, and has tortured me throughout my adult life. With diagrams and allusions to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Gregory gives us the answer — and a way to test your friends’ acumen.

Although there is a nominal structure to the collection—it is divided into four sections: “What Scientists Study,” “Who Scientists Are,” “What Scientists Think” and “What Scientists Delight In”—there are two threads that tie together all the pieces. The first is a childlike wonder at the marvels of the universe, an emotion that permeates all of Dawkins’s own writing. There is plenty both to excite the layman and to rekindle the enthusiasm of the jaded scientist. Can anything be lovelier than the anthropologist Loren Eiseley’s description of how the evolution of flowers changed the world?

The great Ice Age herds were destined to vanish. When they did so, another hand, like the hand that grasped the stone by the river long ago, would pluck a handful of grass seed and hold it contemplatively. In that moment, the golden towers of man, his turning wheels, the vast learning of his packed libraries would glimmer dimly there in the ancestor of wheat, a few seeds held in a muddy hand. Without the gift of flowers and the infinite diversity of their fruits, man and bird, if they had continued to exist at all, would be today unrecognizable. Archaeopteryx, the lizard-bird, might still be snapping at beetles on a sequoia limb; man might still be a nocturnal insectivore gnawing a roach in the dark. The weight of a petal has changed the face of the world and made it ours.

The collection’s second theme is how nature’s complexity derives from rules that are simple. This is another leitmotif of Dawkins’s writing, and explains why the anthology is so heavy on evolution and physics. Evolution has natural selection, which produces the diversity of life from a few simple conditions; physics has deep laws that build up the Universe from interactions between infinitesimally small particles. Dawkins’s selection is not biased here: evolution and physics have simply stimulated those juices that produce the best science writing.

There are of course a few duds. Dawkins seems to have included some authors more from a sense of academic duty than for the merits of their prose. The leaden words of the geneticist Sir Ronald Fisher are hard to digest, and Albert Einstein, brilliant as he was, simply couldn’t write engagingly in his non-native English. And where is Richard Lewontin, a writer far more fluent and thoughtful than many represented here? Could his well-known feud with Dawkins have prompted this omission?

But quibbles about the choices should not detract from the very high quality of what Richard Dawkins and Oxford University Press have assembled. Every school library should own a copy of this book; every person with even a passing interest in science should read it. Some pieces of popular science writing, like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, have made the bestseller lists (although perhaps not the best-read lists), but in general science writing has taken a back seat to other literary genres. Indeed, the bottom has recently dropped out of the science writing market: last year’s New York Times list of fifty notable non-fiction books showed not one devoted to science. This lamentable situation not only contributes to scientific illiteracy, but also deprives readers of some of the finest prose around. The pages of this book show what we are missing.

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