Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Greatest Science Books of All-Time

Discover magazine has published a list of The Greatest Science Books of All-Time.

I have no problem with Darwin being at the top of the list (#1 and #2) and the next six choices seem reasonable. But The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins at #9? No way. That book will be forgotten in a few more years. If you must put Dawkins on the list then The Blind Watchmaker is the book to pick.

The Double Helix by James D. Watson at #11 is controversial, but I have to admit it's justified. #14 is The Insect Societies by E. O. Wilson. I can't imagine who voted for that.

The top Stephen Jay Gould book is The Mismeasure of Man at #17. It's a good book but I would have put The Panda's Thumb ahead of it ... way ahead.

Some of the other choices are very strange. The most obvious omissions, in my opinion, are Chance and Necessity by Jacques Monod, The Nature of the Chemical Bond by Linus Pauling, and The Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Freeland Judson.


  1. Jayzuz H. Keerahst, Larry.

    You read DISCOVER magazine? That pop science POS isn't worth the paper it's written on. It's for non-scientists to read while waiting in the dentist's office or in line at the grocers.

    Unbelievable. Did you bribe someone to get a PhD or did you have some terrible accident that turned you into a drooling moron?

  2. You seem to have drawn in the mentally deficient crowd from Uncommon Descent well enough so far -- we need to get you some more intelligent commenters.

    I think the choice of Mismeasure of Man was a good one. It's a bit drier than his later work (which tended to get a bit too gooey and drippy), but it was also solid. Structure has more interesting ideas than anything else he ever wrote, but the painful excesses of his style make it impenetrable to most people, and it's never going to have the influence it should.

  3. Don't get me wrong. I'm not trashing Mismeasure of Man. I think it was an excellent book and went a long toward discreding phony science. (Although the lesson seems to be wearing off lately.)

    Gould's other books had a greater impact on the general public. The Panda's Thumb probably sold ten time as many copies as Mismeasure of Man. TPT contains a number of important essays and widely quoted passages. Here's one you might like ....

    In my own, strongly biased opinion, the problem of reconciling evident discontinuity in macroevolution with Darwinism is largely solved by the observation that small changes early in embryology accumulate through growth to yield profound differences among adults.

    And here's one for the IDiots ...

    The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology.

  4. I really enjoyed The Mismeasure Of Man. I heard it as an audioboiok, read by Larry McKeever, and I distinctly preferred it to most of Gould's essay collections. I think this was partly because it was a book with a set and particular aim instead of being a miscellany.

  5. "audioboiok"? I should really think before I type :)

  6. [[You read DISCOVER magazine? That pop science POS isn't worth the paper it's written on]]

    Surely it doesn't hold a candle to your favorite peer-reviewed journal of science, Scientific American. Right?

  7. DISCOVER magazine recently changed ownership. If you want a hint about whether this will be good or bad for the quality of the magazine, be sure to read the introductory essay to that list, by Kary B. Mullis. I'm sure you'll appreciate the good things Mullis has to say about the likes of Dean Radin and Peter Duesberg.

  8. Thanks for posting this. But it seems the authors of this list made the very same errors that the Mismeasure of Man pointed out- extreme Western bias. Where is Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, or El Zahrawi? Their contributions are far-reaching and naturally predate the early Western works which were often barely more than translations of their work. The list would be better titled The Top Western Science Texts

  9. It's an odd sort of list. By the time it finishes wending between natural history, memoir, scholarship, pop, compendium, and tome, there's no one left who would want to read the whole list.

    If I was pointing my kids at the list (why else come up with one?) I'd swap Feynman's Character of Physical Law for the lectures, Watchmaker for Selfish, Wonderful Life for Mismeasure of Man, Subtle is the Lord for Relativity, Dyson for Sacks (Infinite in All Directions), throw in Eighth Day of Creation, of course, and since Heinz Pagels isn't in there, we'll make room for Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan, to keep it lush.

    It was clever of them to remember Rhodes The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

  10. If you want a hint about whether this will be good or bad for the quality of the magazine, be sure to read the introductory essay to that list, by Kary B. Mullis.

    Huh. I guess Kary is taking a break from his movie scripts.

  11. I disagree with you about the The Selfish Gene. That book had a large impact on the way that working evolutionary biologists viewed evolution. Because many of the ideas are now mainstream, it is easy to forget that they were revolutionary when the book was published. If the book is forgetten, it will only be because it accomplished its goal so well.

  12. Selfish Gene and Watchmaker were both great. Selfish Gene was a little more of shock when I first read it, especially the survival machine metaphor. It's a tie for me. I'm also finding Ancestors Tale and River out of Eden to be quite good so far.

  13. Yes, yes, Dave, we all know how you got all your science education from SciAm until they went all liberal on you and you had to get your wife to pay for your subscription.

    Oh, BTW, Dave, your presence is requested here:

  14. Friend Fruit wrote

    I'm sure you'll appreciate the good things Mullis has to say about the likes of Dean Radin and Peter Duesberg.

    Radin's been riding that same basic horse for 20 years that I know of. If he's still making the same methodological errors -- post hoc data selection, optional stopping rules with feedback to subjects, and so on -- I'm not surprised he's still reporting what he thinks are real phenomena that are still only methodological and statistical artifacts.

  15. Radin's been riding that same basic horse for 20 years that I know of. If he's still making the same methodological errors...

    I heard just today that PEAR is shutting down!

  16. I think the choice of Mismeasure of Man was a good one. . . but it was also solid.

    This is false. MoM consistently botched a scientific realm - psychometrics - that Gould was hostile towards and didn't understand in the least. Countless examples of this can be found in the relevant peer reviewed journals.

    Curiously the magazine seems to realize that those in the best position to judge the book were furious about it, and yet Discover still includes it on the list. It is a serious disgrace to see MoM anywhere near a "best science books" list.

  17. I see you are now allowing the biggest bully in cyberspace to insult everyone here just as he does at Uncommon Descent. Lying cowards like Springer need that to maintain their self confidence. Not satisfied to run UD with an iron fist he has to sally forth and dominate everyone else he can find. He is a caricature of himself and a psychiatrists dream come true. He let the real Springer hang out over at "brainstorms" when he signed his message to me with GFY.

    He is a class act. Enjoy!

  18. Oh yes, you have another class act here, P.Z. Meyers. He is the creep that greeted my only message at Pharyngula with
    "Your stench has preceeded you." following which I was bannedhopefullopy for life. Arden Chatfied is another "prescribed," homozygous, illiterate loser. These clowns deserve one another. Congratulations!

    As for all those books, I wouldn't give you a nickel for any of them. There is more real evolutionary science in Leo Berg's Nomogenesis than in the whole lot of them combined.

    "Study Nature not books"
    Louis Agassiz

    "We seek and offer ourselves to be gulled."

    It is hard to believe isn't it?

    I love it so!

    "A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable."
    John A. Davison

  19. Among Gould's production I most enjoyed Wonderful Life, and feel that his message vis contingency in the history of life is crucially important (but see Conway Morris' pointed rebuttal in "Life's Solution"). I'm one of those brave few who waded through maybe 8/10 of SoET, which is truly a masterwork with important hypotheses regarding levels of selection. I gather that Ontogeny and Phylogeny was also an important impetus to the emergence of Evo/Devo. The cumulative impact of these contributions leave Dawkins in the dust, IMHO.

  20. I want to know what criteria they were using. I can't for the life of me imagine how they could pass Gaia and RCA's autobiography, yet not even give an honorable mention to Sir Charles Lyell's magnum opus Principles of Geology or Linnaeus's Systema Naturae.

  21. I sometimes find it strange that it's always the Blind Watchmaker and Selfish Gene that get mentioned from Dawkins's work. The Extended Phenotype was right up with those two.

  22. Natural selection is very real. It prevents evolution by maintaining the status quo. It even fails at that, ultimately resulting in the extinction of virtually every organism that ever existed. Organic evolution finished 2 million years ago at the genus level and a proven new species has not arisen in historical times.

    The entire Darwinian paradigm is a delusion and a hoax. The environment never had anything to do with evolution except possibly to act as a stimulus for an innate potential. Just as the environment has no influence on ontogeny, so it never had any on phylogeny. How wrong can an hypothesis possibly be?

    The entire scenario was planned from beginning to end. Get used to it. Robert Broom did, Pierre Grasse did and so have I.

    It is hard to believe isn't it?

    I love it so!

    "An hypothesis does not cease to be an hypothsis when a lot of people believe it."
    Boris Ephrussi

    "Hypotheses have to be reasonable - facts don't"

    "We seek and offer ourselves to be gulled."

    "Science commits suicide when she adopts a creed."
    Thomas Henry Huxley

    "A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable."
    John A. Davison

  23. John

    That should read "ex associate professor John A. Davison is a charlatan".

    "The Ancestor's Tale" by Dawkins is a masterpiece.

  24. Oh hi, John. I wonder where you'd slunk off to after mailing that letter to O'Leary. She forwarded it to all the admins at UD. A couple of them, even Dembski, rose up in your defense.

    They rose up, that is, until I emailed them a couple dozen choice quotes from your blog "newprescribedevolution" where you'd called Dembski all kinds of unflattering names. They then went from defending you to pitying you but agreeing that me banning you was the right thing to do. I didn't want to expose you in that way but you left me no choice.

  25. What these books offer is Feynman's contagious wonder about things, his command of the material, and his unique way of presenting complicated ideas from a perspective understandable even to laymen. In the preface, Feynman says that the lectures are "a failure" but that is from the point of view of preparing students to pass examinations. From our point of view, they are THE treasure of Feynman's legacy. It ranks with the greatest science books of all time.
    Generic Viagra

  26. The Mismeasure of Man should not be on the list as it contains a number of errors and omissions:

    Gould's allegation that Morton had doctored his skull collection was re-investigated by John Michael. Michael found very few errors & those that were found were not in the direction Gould claimed.

    Michael JS 1988. A new look at Morton's craniological research. Current Anthropology 29: 349- 54. In the 1996 edition of his book Gould completely avoids Michael's study.

    Galton (1888) observed a brain size/cognitive ability relationship. Modern MRI imaging confirms a positive correlation.

    "Correlations between intelligence and total brain volume
    or grey matter volume have been replicated in magnetic
    resonance imaging (MRI) studies, to the extent that
    intelligence is now commonly used as a confounding
    variable in morphometric studies of disease. MRI-based
    studies estimate a moderate correlation between brain
    size and intelligence of 0.40 to 0.51 (REF. 28; see REF. 29
    on interpreting this correlation, and REF. 30 for a
    meta-analysis)." *

    Gould managed to omit a major literature review on the correlation between brain size and cognitive ability by Van Dalen (1974). In his 1996 version Gould simply deleted the whole section as the MRI evidence on brain size & IQ was obviously damaging to Gould's position.

    For an up to date analysis for the biological correlates of intelligence, see the paper by UCLA Neuroscientist, Paul Thompson, and Yale Psychologist Jeremy Gray,

    * 'Neurobiology of intelligence: science and ethics' Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5, 471-482 (June 2004)

    Also, see: Ankney, C. D. (2009). Whole-brain size and general mental ability: A review. International Journal of Neuroscience, 119, 691-731

  27. cont'd:

    Gould's criticism of factor analysis (and 'g') is flawed: see John Carroll's review Intelligence 21, 121-134 1995 and also Jensen Contemporary Education Review Summer 1982, Volume 1, Number 2, pp. 121- 135.

    David J. Bartholomew, from London School of Economics, who has written a textbook on factor analysis, also explains in "Measuring Intelligence: Facts and Fallacies" explains where Gould goes wrong in this area.

    Gould suggests that Jews tested poorly in the 1920's & this lead to the Immigration Act 1924. These claims are incorrect.

    The idea that Jews tested poorly is actually based on a misrepresentation of a paper authored by Henry Goddard in 1917. Goddard gave IQ tests to people suspected of being mentally handicapped. He found the tests identified a number of such people from various immigrant groups, including Ashkenazi Jews. Leon Kamin in 1974 reported that Goddard had found Jews had low IQ scores. However, Goddard never found that Jews or other groups as a general population had low scores.

    Journal of Biosocial Science 38 (5), pp. 659-693 (2006).

    The other misconception is that this contributed to the 1924 Immigration Act. However, Herrnstein & Snyderman found this was not the case (Intelligence Tests and the Immigration Act of 1924' American Psychologist 38, September 1983).

    In 1981 Gould had suggested that twin studies could be useful for considering hereditary factors. Yet in his 1996 version Gould omitted the entire Minnesota Twin Study.

    For more recent studies showing the heritability of intelligence see work by Robert Plomin, or Thompson above.

    Burdick et al Hum Mol Genet. 2006 May 15;15(10):1563

    Also, see this recent twin study by Thompson looking at myelination, which insulates neurons and is linked to mental processing speed - reported in MIT Technology Review:

    "The UCLA researchers took the study a step further by comparing the white matter architecture of identical twins, who share almost all their DNA, and fraternal twins, who share only half. Results showed that the quality of the white matter is highly genetically determined, although the influence of genetics varies by brain area. According to the findings, about 85 percent of the variation in white matter in the parietal lobe, which is involved in mathematics, logic, and visual-spatial skills, can be attributed to genetics. But only about 45 percent of the variation in the temporal lobe, which plays a central role in learning and memory, appears to be inherited."