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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Best Science Book Ever Written…

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/26/06 at 08:07 PM

...is a novel?

Jonah Lehrer links to The Guardian‘s account of the Royal Institution of London’s crowning Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table “The Best Scientific Book Ever Written.” Not that Levi’s quasi-modernist memoir doesn’t deserve acclaim.  Every chapter’s prefixed by an element which plays some crucial part in the plot or symbolizes—like Linati’s Joycean kidney, with all its attendant frustrations—some moment of personal, cultural or historical of import.  It’s brilliantly executed—but its brilliance lies in Levi’s deft imbrication of the scientific and the personal, the personal and the historical, the scientific and the historical, &c.  The Periodic Table is not a scientific work with literary merit, but a literary work informed, to take one example, by practical applications of modern chemistry.  I wouldn’t complain, except that books like Levi’s receive lay-praise daily.  More worthy of celebration is the rare scientific book able to move a public forever on the brink of scientific illiteracy. 

I don’t want to rehearse the thesis of Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots here, but the Royal Institution’s inclusion of Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle over On The Origin of Species on the shortlist demands it.* The Voyage of the Beagle is an important but utterly conventional document in literary and scientific history.  It lacks The Origin‘s novelistic flair.


The sense that everything is connected, though the connections may be obscured, gave urgency to the enterprise of uncovering such connections.  This was the form of plotting crucial to Dickens’s work, as we can see, for example, in Bleak House, where the fifty-six named—and many more unnamed—characters all turn out to be related by way either of concealed descent (Esther and Lady Deadlock) or of economic dependency ("The dependency of one organic being on another, as of a parasite on its prey, lies generally between beings remote in scale of nature") .... As [Bleak House] proceeds the immense assemblage of apparently contingent characters is ordered and reordered into multiple sets of relations so that we discover that all of them are interdependent.  What at first looks like agglomeration proves to be analysable connection.

The unruly superfluity of Darwin’s material at first gives an impression of superfecundity without design.  Only gradually and retrospectively does the force of the argument emerge from the profusion of example. (42)

Darwin accomplished in The Origin what the popular explication of Pinker’s The Blank Slate doesn’t even attempt: namely, to explain a scientific concept in all its complexity to a world which mostly only understood novels.  Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene actually moves in the opposite direction—it is most powerful when Dawkins oversimplifies, e.g. when he reduces lived complexity into “memes.” (The Dawkins and Pinker books were also shortlisted.)

I suppose my bias shows here, but I think Darwin’s literary-scientific achievement in The Origin towers over the solid work of popularization, The Voyage included.

*That second link takes you to the E.O. Wilson-introduced collection Adam Gopnik recently reviewed for The New Yorker.


So, where do you stand on The Golden Bough? A stunning scientific novel if ever there was one, even if it is “Covent Garden” science, and somewhat overzealous. S. E. Hyman, whom you have of course read, put the Frazer and Darwin together with Freud in The Tangled Bank.

By Conrad on 10/26/06 at 10:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Selfish Gene is an interesting case. That, of course, is the book that made Dawkins’s reputation. But just what kind of reputation does he have? Certainly he’s a popularizer, and that book when into the popular marketplace. Does he have any credentials as a “serious” scientific thinker? My impression is that a good many biologists respect Dawkins a great deal, and not just as a popularizer. Then again, I’ve heard people assert that he’s never done any original science himself. I don’t know biology well enough to make a call myself, but I can imagine that he’s genuinely on the border.

And that bit about the “selfish” gene is at one and the same time brilliant and and misleading. Those who give him credit as a scientist credit Dawkins with really nailing down the gene-centric view of evolution, and that anthropomorphism helps to put it over. At the same time it has mislead countless people into thinking that “selfish” genes necessarily imply that humans are necessarily selfish through biological nature. Paradoxically, it is precisely because genes are “selfish” in a specific and carefully explicated biological sense that it is possible for organisms to exhibit altruistic behavior that may treaten the individuals so behaving. Once you work through the details, you realize that, given the appropriate conditions, it is perfectly possible to have situations where genes “succeed” at the expense of only some of the individual phenotypes that carry them. Others worked out the math, but Dawkins sold the concept, and not only to the lay public. My sense is that he helped clarify the concept for professionals as well.

And this leads to that brilliant freak, the meme. What really got Dawkins’s attention, I believe, is that some cultural behaviors seem to work against the biological imperative to reproduce. Religion, in particular, has such behaviors, e.g. celibacy, suicide cults. So memes can propagate themselves at the expense of their host organism. They’re just like genes, or viruses (just which model you choose is a matter of some contention within memetics).

On the more general issue of deep thought and popularization, here’s the opening paragraphs of my review of Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body
By Steven Mithen

There are at least two reasons why an intellectual specialist writes for a general audience, including intellectual specialists from other disciplines. One is to contribute to civic life by explaining difficult but important subjects in a way that makes them accessible to the citizen who is curious about the world. Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct is a distinguished recent example of such a book. But a specialist in some discipline may also seek a broader canvas than is available within the guiding principles of the specialized journal article or professional monograph. Here I think of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. When done well, a book of this type has a value for the specialist that the unadorned popularization, no matter how well done, does not have.

There are important problems that cannot be handled within confines of a single intellectual discipline. The origins of humankind is one of these problems. No matter which facet of that problem interests you, you inevitably find yourself looking at everything - or so it seems. Is music an offshoot of language or did a music-like activity evolve prior to language? In principle we could answer this question by traveling back in time and making direct observations. Unfortunately, that particular principle cannot be realized in the world as we know it, so we must instead approach human origins indirectly by gathering evidence from a wide variety of disciplines - archeology, physical and cultural anthropology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, and the neurosciences - and piecing it together. Such work entails a level of speculation that is incompatible with the publication demands of the specialist literature. It also demands a breadth of knowledge that is all but impossible. When done well, however, such a book contributes to specialist investigations by establishing a framework within which more detailed work can be done.

And here are some remarks on the responsibility of popularization from my (very negative) review of Robert Aunger’s The Electric Meme:

Whatever these scholars may have had in mind when they penned their praise [blurbs for Aunger’s book] I suspect they will reconsider if and when any of their graduate students start spiking to the beat of Aunger’s neuromemetic drummers. Intellectual specialists lacking neuroscientific knowledge might well be deceived on their first reading of Aunger’s prose, especially if they read him generously and assume that he knows what he’s talking about. But they will not remain deceived once they study his words carefully. No, despite this superficial praise, I am not yet worried about the specialist community.

The Electric Meme, however, has been published as a trade book directed at the educated public. Judging from the comments posted at Amazon.com, for example, some of these readers have taken Aunger’s ideas at face value and are quite pleased with them. That is not surprising. The general idea of memes has been a seductive one; people want to believe it. Readers are thus willing to believe that any difficulties they experience in reading The Electric Meme reflect their own ignorance.

One of the attractions of writing for a general audience is that one has an opportunity to speculate more freely than one can in the refereed literature. At the same time, your audience is less likely to detect any mistakes you make as they lack the specialized intellectual skill required. Balancing speculative freedom against your responsibility to a vulnerable audience is difficult.

By Bill Benzon on 10/27/06 at 06:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What I like about the periodic table of elements is the fact that, based on what I’ve read, Mendeleev’s discovery of it was pretty naively empirical in methodology. To begin with he didn’t know what shape the table would have (or even that it was two-dimensional), or what qualities of elements he should be looking at. He had some horizontal groups of seven (excluding noble elements) and miscellaneous short vertical groups.

By John Emerson on 10/27/06 at 11:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong may be another case in point. Here’s a paragraph from the review by Paul Bloom and Izzat Jarudi in Nature:

As Hauser is careful to point out, he is not the first to make the leap from a chomskyan theory of language to a chomskyan theory of morality: this analogy was proposed by the political philosopher John Rawls, the legal scholar John Mikhail of Georgetown University in Washington DC, and by Chomsky himself. But Moral Minds is the first detailed exploration of this idea. It is a trade book, highly accessible to a general audience and drawing on diverse examples from literature, popular culture and history. But it is also a deeply significant intellectual contribution: everything that’s done in the new science of moral psychology in the coming years is going to be a response to this important and enjoyable work.

By Bill Benzon on 10/27/06 at 12:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I, on the other hand, could never make it all the way through On the Origin of Species.  Certainly it has done much for our scientific literacy, and I generally found the litany of observations quite fascinating, but as literature it seemed to me quite unwieldy.  So I would tend to place it in the same sort of category as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time: a book by a brilliant scientist who is not nearly so engaging a storyteller.  After trying (and failing) several times to get through Hawking’s work--despite the fact that I share his profession!--it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that (as the conventional wisdom goes) so many people have purchased it and given it a prominent place on their coffee table, but precious few have actually read it.

Maybe I’ll have to give both Darwin and Hawking another try, to see if my perceptions have changed at all.

By on 10/27/06 at 12:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, nice post. I agree with you about Darwin; one quality that stands out about effective scientific narratives is the sense of re-creating the original moment of discovery, as Darwin does when he moves from the techniques of domestic breeding to the analogous theory of evolution. Who knows how much of my later interest in studying “character” in novels was sparked by reading de Kruif’s adventure story The Microbe Hunters.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/27/06 at 01:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So, where do you stand on The Golden Bough? A stunning scientific novel if ever there was one, even if it is “Covent Garden” science, and somewhat overzealous. S. E. Hyman, whom you have of course read, put the Frazer and Darwin together with Freud in The Tangled Bank.

To my eternal shame, I’ve only read bits and pieces of The Golden Bough, so I’m not fit to speak to where it falls in my minor taxonomy.  The Hyman I’ve only read about (in Zirkle?) but I do like the title—by which I mean, I could dash over to Wikipedia and muster some ersatz erudition, but I’d prefer to hear where you think The Golden Bough and The Tangled Bank fit in my scheme.

The Selfish Gene is an interesting case.

That’s not the half of it, Bill—actually, that is about the half of it you have there in your comment.  The abuse Dawkins’ inflammatory title has brought upon the field and the way “memes” went viral (sorry, sorry) have created as many, if not more, problems than they solved.  From my perspective—by which I mean, “to the best of my memory,” since I can’t locate either of my copies at the moment—the problem with the book is that it follows Darwin’s precedent too closely, i.e. that intellectual debt notwithstanding, Dawkins wouldn’t have been able to write it had he not had the form Darwin invented ex nihilo.  (I also wonder if there isn’t something to the similarity of their names which accounts for his popularity.  The “d,” “a,” “w,” “i,” and “n” with a couple more or less letters jammed between doesn’t mislead, but it aids in name-recognition, I bet.  You know, of the sort people always talk about in politics, but never, it seems, in academia.)

What I like about the periodic table of elements ...

You know what I like about John Emerson?  He’s the only person I know who would wait, patiently, until someone mentioned the periodic table so he could tell his favorite periodic table story.  There just aren’t many people like that out there.

Certainly it has done much for our scientific literacy, and I generally found the litany of observations quite fascinating, but as literature it seemed to me quite unwieldy.

Kyler, this may be a case of de gustibus—or it may be that you’re uncomfortable not with Darwin per se, but with the conventions of the Victorian novel.  I say this because your adjective “unwieldy” is the adjective which best describes late Dickens.  I’m thinking Bleak House, Little Dorrit, &c.  They’re all unwieldy in the way Beer describes: informational overload coupled an almost unhealthy paranoia.  I mean, fifty-six named characters all connected in various important ways?  That’s the very definition of “unwieldy.”

So you may want to work your way through Little Dorrit first, to see whether it’s Darwin-qua-Darwin that’s the problem, or whether it’s just that you haven’t acquired the taste for byzantine Victorian novels.  (Lest anyone think I’m insulting Kyler, let me say that I think Victorian novels are and acquired taste, and that my argument somewhat depends on people having acquired it.  If someone hasn’t, well, that’s perfectly understandable.  Victorian prose isn’t for everyone.  De gustibus and all.)

I agree with you about Darwin; one quality that stands out about effective scientific narratives is the sense of re-creating the original moment of discovery, as Darwin does when he moves from the techniques of domestic breeding to the analogous theory of evolution.

I’m not certain that’s what he re-creates so much as manufactures, on the spot, in order to convince his audience of what he’s discovered in a way they can understand.  What I mean is, Darwin’s notebooks are a brilliant mess, full of all the hemming and hawing you’d expect from a gentleman science with a bad stomach and insecurity issues.  Maybe that’s selling it too hard, but you see my point.  He created a narrative mode in The Origin that allowed his Victorian audience to be able to read, follow and even understand the bleeding edge of science.  His accomplishment is equal parts content and form—he chose a topic with which the public would know about, and he created a form which allowed them work, step-by-step, from what they knew about to what he was about to put out there. 

I may be overplaying the reading public’s scientific ignorance a bit, since Darwin famously asked everyone about what they knew and gauged The Origin to conform to it.  I’m thinking of the conversations he had with the stable-boys about horses and what-not.  He knew the public had a more-than-passing familiarity with the logic of breeding, which is why he chose to lead with it.  Also, vis-a-vis the public’s knowledge of development, Robert Chamber’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (scroll down to the fourth paragraph) had been something of a national sensation.  Not to say it’s scientific, mind you ...

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/27/06 at 04:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Frazer, Jung, and Eliade (Shamanism) strike me as a most peculiar mix of positivism and fascination with the exotic. The accumulation of detail is amazing, and there’s lots of strange red meat, but the unifying ideas are few, not very interesting, and dated.

By John Emerson on 10/27/06 at 04:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The abuse Dawkins’ inflammatory title has brought upon the field and the way “memes” went viral (sorry, sorry) have created as many, if not more, problems than they solved.

Yes, on both counts. Though, in the 1989 edition, Dawkins has an interesting endnote to the memes chapter where he uses Science Citation Index to track the spread of certain ideas through the literature. That is to say, it is a small example of empirical research in “memetics.” What you almost never see among “memeticists” is empirical research of any kind. My sense is that memetics appeals to people who want to think BIg Thoughts about the mind and about culture but who don’t want to really dig into even one of the relevant literatures. . . . . rant rant yadda yadda rant . . .

John—I was a big fan of Eliade in my undergraduate and early graduate years. Bought and read at least a half dozen of his books, including Shamanism, Yoga, and Cosmos and History. I’ve still got those three, but have jettisoned the others. Don’t consult them much. You’re right, the unifying ideas are dated.

By Bill Benzon on 10/27/06 at 05:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"the unifying ideas are few, not very interesting, and dated.”

Pish! Mais, chacun a son gout… More when (if) I find time.

By Conrad H. Roth on 10/27/06 at 09:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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