Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing

The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, Richard Dawkins ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom (2008)

I'd be lying if I said I read this book from cover to cover. Richard Dawkins has collected 83 short examples of science writing. Most of them are quite good, some of them are excellent, and some I didn't finish. The examples span the entire range of traditional science disciplines with a heavy emphasis on physics, astronomy, and biology. There are very few examples from chemistry or geology.

These are selections picked by Richard Dawkins and they strongly reflect his views of science and of good writing. One of the criteria for inclusion is "good writing by professional scientists, not excursions into science by professional writers" (p. xvii). There's nothing wrong with that, as long as Dawkins sticks to his guns.

Unfortunately, there are so many exceptions to the rule that one wonders why the rule was made up in the first place. We don't have anything by Carl Zimmer (a non-scientist), for example, but we do have examples from Matt Ridley who, while he has a Ph.D. in science has never been a professional scientist. Neither has Daniel Dennett. Rachel Carson worked as a biologist for a while but she was a full-time writer by the time she wrote most of her books. Roger Lewin has never been a professional scientist, as far as I know.

Perhaps Dawkins meant to restrict his authors to those who have earned an advanced degree in science regardless or whether they actually became working scientists. Perhaps that's what he means by "professional scientist." If that's what he means then, as he points out on page 171, Margaret Thatcher might qualify since she got her Master's degree in Chemistry and worked with with Dorothy Hodgkin as an undergraduate. Hodgkin is included. Thatcher isn't.

Dawkins has three other rules. First, all of the works were produced within the past 100 years. This is an excellent restriction, in my opinion. Second, the works must have been first published in English—no translations are allowed (with a few exceptions). Finally, no works by Richard Dawkins are included.

Dawkins introduces each author with a few paragraphs of background material that often includes personal anecdotes. This is where we learn that Dawkins and Gould, "enjoyed—or suffered—a kind of love/hate relationship." We also discover that Fred Hoyle wrote an article that serves as, "an example of the insight that a physical scientist can bring to biology," bearing in mind that it was written, "before Hoyle began the perverse campaign of his old age, against all aspects of Darwinism."1

Some of the choices are very pleasant surprises. I had never heard of James Jeans, the first author in the book. His entry is so interesting—and so in line with modern thought—that I can't resist a quotation. Keep in mind that this was written in 1930.
Into such a universe we have stumbled, if not exactly by mistake, at least as the result of what may properly described as an accident. The use of such a word need not imply any surprise that our earth exists, for accidents will happen, and if the universe goes on for long enough, every conceivable accident is likely to happen in time.
Many of Dawkins' choices have nothing to do with biology but, of those that do, most extol the virtues of design and natural selection. For example, there is a passage from Helena Cronin's The Ant and the Peacock that's as fine an example of science-related prose as can be found anywhere in the anthology. It is good writing but I don't it is good science. Dawkins does, and it's his book and his choice.

This brings me to an important point. In order to be included in any collection of good science writing the work has to be both good writing and good science.2 Both of these criteria are subjective so whether an author is included or not will depend very much on the point of view of the editor. In this case we learn almost as much about Richard Dawkins as we do about the authors he selects.

And the authors he omits. Of the three giants of population genetics, R.A. Fisher and J.B.S. Haldane get included but Sewell Wright isn't even named. There's nothing by Richard Lewontin, Niles Eldredge, Gabriel Dover or David Raup. Ken Miller, Francis Collins, and Simon Conway-Morris are missing as well. Daniel Dennett is there but not Michael Ruse. One gets the impression that a similar book edited by Stephen Jay Gould would look quite different.

Now don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with this. As far as I'm concerned "good" science writing includes scientific accuracy and Dawkins has every right to pick and choose those authors who get it right, in his opinion. However, I'd prefer that editors lay their cards on the table and admit openly that their selections are influenced by this bias.3

No book of this sort should be complete without Peter Medawar and this book is no exception. Medawar's famous wit is unequaled, and often unappreciated. I fear it is a lost art. Dawkins is such a fan of Medawar (as am I) that he includes five excerpts from his books and essays—more than any other science writer.

Let me close with a quotation from Peter Medawar's essay on Science and Literature where Medawar is discussing a modern trend among philosophers and scientists to write very complicated prose,
Let me end this section with a declaration of my own. In all territories of thought which science or philosophy can lay claim to, including those upon which literature also has a proper claim, no one who has something original or important to say will willingly run the risk of being misunderstood: people who write obscurely are either unskilled in writing or up to some mischief. The writers I am speaking of are, however, in a purely literary sense, extremely skilled.

1. In contrast to Dawkins' praise, I found the passage from Hoyle to be almost incomprehensible. It is not good science writing, in my opinion, and it certainly isn't "insightful."

2. There are exceptions. Dawkins included a passage from R.A. Fisher's book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection even though he (Dawkins) recognizes that it may not be an example of good writing.

3. I'm going to post some examples of my own biases with respect to good science writing, concentrating almost exclusively on those writers that don't appear in The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing.


  1. Now that I've looked up Medawar (note, one "e"), I want to add him to my wish list. Have you read his books and could recommend which one to read first?

  2. The one I give as gifts is Pluto's Republic.

  3. Good criteria.

    On scientists, Dawkins may have been inclusive - certainly Wikipedia defines it so - so maybe for example Dennett's reviews and lectures applies. (Sort of, "if he writes so much and well in science that scientists accepts it"). People writes papers while they work in companies et cetera.

    I assume Dawkins himself has a shaky position otherwise.

  4. mlf says,

    ... Medawar (note, one "e") ...

    Thanks. I'm hopeless if my spellchecker can't rescue me.

  5. "One gets the impression that a similar book edited by Stephen Jay Gould would look quite different."


  6. This book was a bit of a disappointment because I thought it was a HOW TO for modern scientific writing. But alas . . .