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Friday, October 29, 2021

Do scientists write books for the "casual reader"?

I just read a review in Science of Douglas Futuyma’s new book How Birds Evolve: What Science Reveals About Their Origin, Lives, and Diversity. [Contextualizing avian origins and evolution]. Many of you will be familiar with Futuyma because he’s the author of one of the best textbooks on evolution.

Right after reading the review, I signed on to Amazon intending to buy the book but when I saw the price ($95 Cdn) I had second thoughts. Much as I’d like to see how Futuyma handles a complex topic like bird evolution, I don’t think I want to spend that much money.

But there are parts of the review that I find intriguing enough to address because they relate to my concern about science writing. Here’s the first thing that caught my eye. The reviewer, Alan Feduccia, writes,

Although casual readers might find the text somewhat advanced and laborious, the chapters are composed in well-written conversational prose, with expositions on multifarious evolutionary phenomena that are infused with scientific explanations.

This highlights an issue that I’ve been writing about recently. "Casual readers" are not going to buy this book and I’m confident that Futuyma is not writing for casual readers. What’s the point of saying that such readers might find the book "advanced and laborious"? What I want to know is whether the actual intended audience would find the book laborious.

The reviewer goes on to describe some of things that are in the book.

Futuyma’s discussion begins with a section that explains Charles Darwin’s transformative ideas—from natural selection and fitness to brood parasitism to gene flow and genetic drift—and thematic chapters elaborate on the relationship between these ideas and bird lineages. The book describes complex evolutionary issues in understandable terms, ...

That sounds like the kind of science writing that I admire. We should aim for explaining complex issues in terms that are understandable to an audience that is prepared to buy the book. This may mean that the casual readers - who will never buy the book - are left out but that’s okay. It may mean that Futuyuma’s book is not going to win a Pulitzer Price for general nonfiction but that’s okay too since good science books are not high on the list of previous award winners.1 I’m pretty sure that scientific accuracy isn’t a prominent criterion in selecting award winners (in any category).

The reviewer is somewhat critical of the science in the book and takes Futuyma to task for promoting “just-so” stories and for not fully explaining the speculative nature of some of his conclusions. The reviewer notes that “controversy, not consensus, is grist to the mill of good science” and that strikes me as insightful. The problem is that writing about controversy and attempting to explain both sides of an issue are very hard to do and often in conflict with the emphasis on style that is promoted by science writers and editors.

1. Previous Pulitzer Prize winning books that might be counted as science books are: The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2011); Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond (1998); The Beak Of The Finch: A Story Of Evolution In Our Time, by Jonathan Weiner (1995); The Ants, by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson (1990); and On Human Nature, by Edward O. Wilson (1979).


Gerdien de Jong said... $ 29.95, Netherlands E 42.99, both hardcover.

John Harshman said...

I would tend to be skeptical of any criticisms of the book made by Feduccia. He has a constantly ground ax.

Tony said...

It does feel similar to letting John Mattick review a book on Junk DNA

John Harshman said...

Incidentally, I'm quite annoyed by the opening sentence, which ignores all the considerable success with molecular phylogenetic of birds before 2014, notably but not limited to a couple of fine publications in 2008 (Hackett et al., Harshman et al.).

Alex said...

Alan Feduccia is a proponent of the theory that birds are not dinosaurs. which has exactly 0 support nowadays. I don't know if you knew, but he is absolutely not a credible source on bird evolution. And the controversy he talks about is mainly that virtually no one among paleontologists believes he is right.

darwin upheaval said...

Feduccia seems to be a misfit among experts, and his review has dangerous consequences: In the meanwhile, some German creationist organizations uses Feduccias critique for their purpose, and he's not blamelessly on that! I cite from a website of "Word& Wissen" ("word and faith", translation to English in my words):

“In his recent review, Feduccia (2021, 412) points to a disastrous contradiction: ‘Flightless birds, likewise, have never, to our knowledge, re-evolved flight. But this begs the question: How did theropod dinosaurs, with their already foreshortened forelimbs and stubby hands, re-evolve highly extended wings with prolongated fingers?’ That’s a strong argument against the evolution of flight. … It would be much easier to regain the ability to fly than to develop it for the first time from primarily flightless dinosaurs. Because birds with secondary flightlessness are anatomically much more suitable for the acquisition of flight than two-legged dinosaurs. If the former does not occur despite the existence of numerous potential parent groups, the latter is even more unlikely.”

Feduccias review seems to be a superb blueprint for those cranks.

João said...

Alan Feduccia is that kind of guy who can't let an old, cherished idea go. Of course he would be critic of the science in the book, since regarding bird origins, Feduccia seems to prefer bad science. Here is why Feduccia gets things very, very wrong on bird evolution:

Steve Watson said...

I recall Feduccia being brought up on (about 20+ years ago) in the context of some creationist abusing his ideas. In fact, I think I've found it:

John Harshman said...

That may be a creationist, but he's accurately reporting Feduccia's ideas. Note that all that predates the discovery of feathered theropods. Previously Feduccia had argued that Deinonychus and its relatives could not possibly be related to birds based on, among other things, the stuff in that article. Afterwards, Feduccia argued that they were definitely birds but were not dinosaurs. That's the view commonly called by the initials of Maniraptorans Are Not In Actuality Coelurosaurs.