In France they call this genre vulgarisation—but the implications are entirely
positive. In America, we call it “popular (or pop) writing” and its practitioners are dubbed “science writers” even if, like me, they
are working scientists who love to share the power and beauty of their field with people in other professions.
In France (and throughout Europe), vulgarisation ranks within the highest traditions of humanism, and also
enjoys an ancient pedigree—from St. Francis communing with animals to Galileo choosing to write his two great works in Italian, as
dialogues between professor and students, and not in the formal Latin
of churches and universities. In America, for reasons that I do not understand (and that are truly perverse), such writing for
nonscientists lies immured in deprecations—“adulteration,” “simplification,” “distortion for effect,” “grandstanding,” “whiz-bang.” I do
not deny that many American works deserve these designations—but poor and self-serving items, even in vast majority, do not invalidate a
genre. “Romance” fiction has not banished love as a subject for great novelists.
I deeply deplore the equation of popular writing with pap and distortion for two main reasons. First, such a
designation imposes a crushing professional burden on scientists (particularly young scientists without tenure) who might like to try their
hand at this expansive style. Second, it denigrates the intelligence of millions of Americans eager for intellectual stimulation without
patronization. If we writers assume a crushing mean of mediocrity and incomprehension, then not only do we have contempt for our neighbors,
but we also extinguish the light of excellence. The “perceptive and intelligent” layperson is no myth. They exist in millions—a low
percentage of Americans perhaps, but a high absolute number with influence beyond their proportion in the population. I know this in the
most direct possible way—by thousands of letters received from nonprofessionals during my twenty years of writing these essays, and
particularly from the large number written by people in their eighties and nineties, and still striving, as intensely as ever, to grasp
nature’s richness and add to a lifetime of understanding.
We must all pledge ourselves to recovering accessible science as an honorable intellectual tradition. The rules are
simple: no compromises with conceptual richness; no bypassing of ambiguity or ignorance; removal of jargon, of course, but no dumbing
down of ideas (any conceptual complexity can be conveyed in ordinary English). Several of us are pursuing this style of writing in
America today. And we enjoy success if we do it well. Thus, our primary task lies in public relations: We must be vigorous in identifying
what we are and are not, uncompromising in our claims to the humanistic lineages of St. Francis and Galileo, not to the sound bites and
photo ops in current ideologies of persuasion—the ultimate in another grand old American tradition (the dark side of anti-intellectualism,
and not without a whiff of appeal to the unthinking emotionalism that can be a harbinger of fascism).
Humanistic natural history comes in two basic lineages. I call them Franciscan and Galilean in the light of my earlier
discussion. Franciscan writing is nature poetry—an exaltation of organic beauty by corresponding choice of words and phrase. Its lineage
runs from St. Francis to Thoreau
on Walden Pond, W.
H. Hudson on the English downs, to
Loren Eiseley in our generation. Galilean
composition delights in nature’s intellectual puzzles and our quest for explanation and understanding. Galileans do not deny the visceral
beauty, but take greater delight in the joy of causal comprehension and its powerful theme of unification. The Galilean (or rationalist)
lineage has roots more ancient than its eponym—from Aristotle dissecting
squid to Galileo reversing the heavens, to T. H. Huxley inverting our natural place, to
P. B. Medawar dissecting the follies of our generation.
I love good Franciscan writing but regard myself as a fervent, unrepentant, pure Galilean—and for two major reasons.
First, I would be an embarrassing flop in the Franciscan trade. Poetic writing is the most dangerous of all genres because failures are
so conspicuous, usually as the most ludicrous form of purple prose (see James Joyce’s parody, cited in
Chapter 17). Cobblers should stick to
their lasts and rationalists to their measured style. Second, Wordsworth was right. The child is father to the man. My youthful “splendor
in the grass” was the bustle and buildings of New York. My adult joys have been walks in cities, amidst stunning human diversity of
behavior and architecture—from the Quirinal to the
Piazza Navona at dusk, from the
New Town to the
Old Town of Edinburgh at dawn—more than excursions in the woods. I am not
insensible to natural beauty, but my emotional joys center on the improbable yet sometimes wondrous works of that tiny and accidental
evolutionary twig called Homo sapiens. And I find, among these works, nothing more noble than the history of our struggle to
understand nature—a majestic entity of such vast spatial and temporal scope that she cannot care much for a little mammalian afterthought
with a curious evolutionary invention, even if that invention has, for the first time in some four billion years of life on earth,
produced recursion as a creature reflects back upon its own production and evolution. Thus, I love nature primarily for the puzzles and
intellectual delights that she offers to the first organ capable of such curious contemplation.
Franciscans may seek a poetic oneness with nature, but we Galilean rationalists have a program of unification as
well—nature made mind and mind now returns the favor by trying to comprehend the source of production.
This is the fifth volume of collected essays from my monthly series,
“This View of Life,” now approaching two hundred items over eighteen years in
Natural History magazine (the others, in order, are Ever Since Darwin, The Panda’s
Thumb, Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, and The Flamingo’s Smile). The themes may be familiar (with a good dollop
of novelty, I trust), but the items are mostly new (and God has never left his dwelling place in the details).
Against a potential charge of redundancy, may I advance the immodest assertion that this volume is the best of the
five. I think that I have become a better writer by monthly practice (I sometimes wish that all copies of Ever Since Darwin
would self-destruct), and I have given myself more latitude of selection and choice in this volume. (The previous four volumes
discarded only a turkey or two and then published all available items in three years of essays. This volume, covering six years of
writing, presents the best, or rather the most integrated, thirty-five pieces from more than sixty choices.)
These essays, while centered on the enduring themes of evolution and the innumerable, instructive oddities of
nature (frogs that use their stomachs as brood pouches, the
gigantic eggs of Kiwis, an
ant with a single chromosome), also record the specific
passage of six years since the fourth volume. I have marked the successful completion of a sixty-year battle against creationism
(since the Scopes trial of 1925) in our resounding Supreme Court
victory of 1987 (see essays under “Scopes to Scalia”), the
bicentennial of the French revolution (in an essay on Lavoisier,
most prominent scientific victim of the Reign of Terror), and the magnificent completion of our greatest technical triumph in
Voyager’s fly-by and photography of Uranus and Neptune (Essays 34 and 35). I also record, as I must, our current distresses and
failures—the sorry state of science education (approached, as is my wont, not tendentiously, abstractly, and head-on, but through
byways that sneak up on generality—fox terriers and textbook
copying, or subversion of dinomania for intellectual benefit), and a sad epilogue on the extinction, between first writing and
this republication, of the stomach-brooding frog.
Yet I confess that my personal favorites usually treat less immediate, even obscure, subjects—especially when
correction of the errors that confined them to ridicule or obscurity retells their stories as relevant and instructive today.
Thus, I write about Abbot Thayer’s theory that flamingos are red to hide them from predators in the sunset, Petrus Camper’s real
intent (criteria for art) in establishing a measure later used by scientific racists, the
admirable side of William
Jennings Bryan and the racist nonsense in the text that John Scopes used to teach evolution, the actual (and much more
interesting) story behind the heroic, cardboard version of the
Huxley-Wilberforce debate of 1860.
For what it’s worth, my own favorite is Essay 21 on N. S. Shaler and William James (I won’t reveal my vote for
the worst essays—especially since they have been shredded in my mental refuse bin and will not be included in these volumes).
At least Essay 21 best illustrates my favorite method of beginning with something small and curious and then working outward and
onward by a network of lateral connections. I found the fearful
letter of Shaler to Agassiz in a drawer almost twenty years ago. I always knew that I would find a use for it someday—but I
had no inkling of the proper context. A new
biography of Shaler led me to explore his relationship with Agassiz. I then discovered the extent of Shaler’s uncritical (and
lifelong) fealty by reading his technical papers. At this point, luck intervened. One of my undergraduate advisees told me that
William James, as a Harvard undergraduate, had sailed with Agassiz to Brazil on the master’s penultimate voyage. I knew that
Shaler and James had been friendly colleagues and intellectual adversaries—and now I had full connectivity in their shared link to
Agassiz. But would anything interesting emerge from all these ties? Again, good fortune smiled. James had been critical of Agassiz
right from the start—and in the very intellectual arena (contingency versus design in the history of life) that would host their
later disagreements as distinguished senior professors. I then found a truly amazing letter from James to Shaler offering the most
concise and insightful rebuttal I have ever read to the common misconception—as current today as when James and Shaler argued—that
the improbability of our evolution indicates divine intent in our origin. James’s document—also a brilliant statement on the general
nature of probability—provided a climax of modern relevance for a story that began with an obscure note lying undiscovered in a
drawer for more than a hundred years. Moreover, James’s argument allowed me to resolve the dilemma of the museum janitor, Mr. Eli
Grant, potential victim of Shaler’s cowardly note—so the essay ends by using James’s great generality to solve the little mystery of
its beginning, a more satisfactory closure (I think) than the disembodied abstraction of James’s brilliance.
Finally, and now thrice lucky, I received two years later a
fascinating letter from Jimmy Carter presenting a theological
alternative to the view of contingency and improbability in human evolution advanced in my last book,
Wonderful Life. Carter’s
argument, though more subtle and cogent than Shaler’s, follows the same logic—and James’s rebuttal has never been bettered or more
apropos. And so, by presidential proclamation, I had an epilogue that proved the modern relevance of Shaler’s traditionalism versus
Some people have seen me as a polymath, but I insist that I am a tradesman. I admit to a broad range of explicit
detail, but all are chosen to illustrate the common subjects of evolutionary change and the nature of history. And I trust that this
restricted focus grants coherence and integration to an overtly disparate range of topics. The bullet that hit George Canning in
the ass really is a vehicle for discussing the same historical contingency that rules evolution. My sweet little story about nostalgia
at the thirtieth reunion of my All-City high school chorus is meant to be a general statement (bittersweet in its failure to resolve a
cardinal dichotomy) about the nature of excellence. The essay
on Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak is a disquisition on probability and pattern in historical sequences; another on the beginnings of
baseball explores creation versus evolution as primal stories for the origin of any object or institution. And
Essay 32, the only bit I have ever been moved to write about my bout with
cancer, is not a confessional in the personal mode, but a general statistical argument about the nature of variation in populations—the
central topic of all evolutionary biology.
A final thought on Franciscans and Galileans in the light of our environmental concerns as a tattered planet
approaches the millennium (by human reckoning—as nature, dealing in billions, can only chuckle). Franciscans engage the glory of nature
by direct communion. Yet nature is so massively indifferent to us and our suffering. Perhaps this indifference, this majesty of years
in uncaring billions (before we made a belated appearance), marks her true glory. Omar Khayyám’s old quatrain grasped this fundamental
truth (though he should have described his Eastern hotel, his metaphor for the earth, as grand rather than battered):
Think, in this battered caravanserai
Whose portals are alternate night and day,
How sultan after sultan with his pomp
Abode his destined hour, and went his way.
The true beauty of nature is her amplitude; she exists neither for nor because of us, and possesses a staying power
that all our nuclear arsenals cannot threaten (much as we can easily destroy our puny selves).
The hubris that got us into trouble in the first place, and that environmentalists seek to avoid as the very
definition of their (I should say our) movement, often creeps back in an unsuspected (and therefore potentially dangerous) form in
two tenets frequently advanced by “green” movements: (1) that we live on a fragile planet subject to permanent ruin by human
malfeasance; (2) that humans must act as stewards of this fragility in order to save our planet.
We should be so powerful! (Read this sentence with my New York accent as a derisive statement about our false
sense of might, not as a literal statement of desire.) For all our mental and technological wizardry, I doubt that we can do much
to derail the earth’s history in any permanent sense by the proper planetary time scale of millions of years. Nothing within our
power can come close to conditions and catastrophes that the earth has often passed through and beyond. The worst scenario of
global warming under greenhouse models yields an earth substantially cooler than many happy and prosperous times of a prehuman
past. The megatonnage of the extraterrestrial impact that probably triggered the late Cretaceous mass extinction has been estimated
at 10,000 times greater than all the nuclear bombs now stockpiled on earth. And this extinction, wiping out some 50 percent of
marine species, was paltry compared to the granddaddy of all—the Permian event some 225 million years ago that might have
dispatched up to 95 percent of species. Yet the earth recovered from these superhuman shocks, and produced some interesting
evolutionary novelties as a result (consider the potential for mammalian domination, including human emergence, following the
removal of dinosaurs).
But recovery and restabilization occur at planetary, not human, time scales—that is, millions of years after the
disturbing event. At this scale, we are powerless to harm; the planet will take care of itself, our puny foolishnesses
notwithstanding. But this time scale, though natural for planetary history, is not appropriate in our legitimately parochial concern
for our own species, and the current planetary configurations that now support us. For these planetary instants—our millennia—we
do hold power to impose immense suffering (I suspect that the Permian catastrophe was decidedly unpleasant for the nineteen of
twenty species that didn’t survive).
We certainly cannot wipe out bacteria (they have been the modal
organisms on earth right from the start, and probably shall be until the sun explodes); I doubt that we can wreak much permanent
havoc upon insects as a whole (whatever our power to destroy local populations and species). But we can surely eliminate our
fragile selves—and our well-buffered earth might then breathe a metaphorical sigh of relief at the ultimate failure of an
interesting but dangerous experiment in consciousness. Global warming is worrisome because it will flood our cities (built so often
at sea level as ports and harbors), and alter our agricultural patterns to the severe detriment of millions. Nuclear war is an
ultimate calamity for the pain and death of billions, and the genetic maiming of millions in future generations.
Our planet is not fragile at its own time scale, and we, pitiful latecomers in the last microsecond of our
planetary year, are stewards of nothing in the long run. Yet no political movement is more vital and timely than modern
environmentalism—because we must save ourselves (and our neighbor species) from our own immediate folly. We hear so much talk
about an environmental ethic. Many proposals embody the abstract majesty of a Kantian categorical imperative. Yet I think that we
need something far more grubby and practical. We need a version of the most useful and ancient moral principle of all—the precept
developed in one form or another by nearly every culture because it acts, in its legitimate appeal to self-interest, as a doctrine
of stability based upon mutual respect. No one has ever improved upon the golden rule. If we execute such a compact with our
planet, pledging to cherish the earth as we would wish to be treated ourselves, she may relent and allow us to muddle through.
Such a limited goal may strike some readers as cynical or blinkered. But remember that, to an evolutionary biologist, persistence
is the ultimate reward. And human brainpower, for reasons quite unrelated to its evolutionary origin, has the damnedest capacity
to discover the most fascinating things, and think the most peculiar thoughts. So why not keep this interesting experiment around,
at least for another planetary second or two.