The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2001by Burkhard Bilger
Also an instant bestseller in the Best American series, this second annual Best American Science and Nature Writing volume, edited by the Pulitzer Prizewinning author, scientist, and naturalist Edward O. Wilson, promises to be another “eclectic, provocative collection” (Entertainment Weekly) that is both a science reader’s dream and a nature… See more details below
Also an instant bestseller in the Best American series, this second annual Best American Science and Nature Writing volume, edited by the Pulitzer Prizewinning author, scientist, and naturalist Edward O. Wilson, promises to be another “eclectic, provocative collection” (Entertainment Weekly) that is both a science reader’s dream and a nature lover’s sustenance.
Read an Excerpt
Introduction: Life Is a Narrative Let me tell you a story. It is about two ants. In the early 1960s, when I was a young professor of zoology at Harvard University, one of the vexing mysteries of evolution was the origin of ants. That was far from a trivial problem in science. Ants are the most abundant of insects, the most effective predators of other insects, and the busiest scavengers of small dead animals. They transport the seeds of thousands of plant species, and they turn and enrich more soil than earthworms. In totality (they number roughly in the million billions and weigh about as much as all of humanity), they are among the key players of Earth’s terrestrial environment. Of equal general interest, they have attained their dominion by means of the most advanced social organization known among animals.
I had chosen these insects for the focus of my research. It was the culmination of a fascination that dated back to childhood. Now, I spent a lot of time thinking about how they came to be. At first the problem seemed insoluble, because the oldest known ants, found in fossil deposits up to 57 million years old, were already advanced anatomically. In fact, they were quite similar to the modern forms all about us. And just as today, these ancient ants were among the most diverse and abundant of insects. It was as though an opaque curtain had been lowered to block our view of everything that occurred before. All we had to work with was the tail end of evolution.
Somewhere in the world the Ur-ants awaited discovery. I had many conversations with William L. Brown, a friend and fellow myrmecologist, about where the missing links might turn up and what traits they possess that could reveal their ancestry among the nonsocial wasps. We guessed that they first appeared in the late Mesozoic era, 65 million or more years ago, far back enough to have stung and otherwise annoyed the last of the dinosaurs. We were not willing to accept the alternative hypothesis favored by some biblical creationists, that ants did not evolve at all but appeared on Earth full-blown.
Because well-preserved fossils had already been collected by the tens of thousands from all around the northern hemisphere over a period of two centuries without any trace of the Ur-species, I was afraid I would never see one in my lifetime. Then, as so often happens in science, a chance event changed everything. One Sunday morning in 1967, a middle-aged couple, Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Frey, were strolling along the base of the seaside bluffs at Cliffwood Beach, New Jersey, collecting bits of fossilized wood and amber from a thin layer of clay freshly exposed by a storm the day before. They were especially interested in the amber, which are jewel-like fragments of fossil tree sap. In one lump they rescued, clear as yellow glass, were two beautifully preserved ants. At first, that might have seemed nothing unusual: museums, including the one at Harvard, are awash in amber ants. What made these specimens important, however, was their age: about 90 million years, from the middle of the Cretaceous period, Mesozoic era, in the Age of Dinosaurs.
The Freys were willing to share their find, and soon the two specimens found their way to me for examination. There they came close to disaster. As I nervously fumbled the amber piece out of its mailing box I dropped it to the floor, where it broke into two halves. Luck stayed with me, however. The break was as clean as though made by a jeweler, and each piece contained an undamaged specimen. Within minutes I determined that the ants were the long- sought Holy Grail of ant paleontology, or at least very close to it. Brown and I later formally placed them in a new genus, Sphecomyrma freyi (literally, “Frey’s wasp ant”). They were more primitive than all other known ants, living and fossil. Moreover, in a dramatic confirmation of evolution as a predictive theory, they possessed most of the intermediate traits that according to our earlier deductions should connect modern ants to the nonsocial wasps.
As a result of the discovery, other entomologists intensified their search, and many more ant fossils of Mesozoic age were soon found. Originating from deposits in New Jersey, Canada, Siberia, and Brazil, they compose a mix of primitive and more advanced species. Bit by bit, they have illuminated the history of ants from near the point of origin over 100 million years ago to the start of the great radiative spread that created the modern fauna.
Science consists of millions of stories like the finding of New Jersey’s dawn ants. These accounts, some electrifying, most pedestrian, become science when they can be tested and woven into cause-and-eeffect explanations to become part of humanity’s material worldview. Science, like the rest of culture, is based on the manufacture of narrative..... That is entirely natural, and in a profound sense it is a Darwinian necessity. We all live by narrative, every day and every minute of our lives. Narrative is the human way of working through a chaotic and unforgiving world bent on reducing our bodies to malodorous catabolic molecules. It delays the surrender of our personal atoms and compounds back to the environment for the assembly of more humans, and ants.
By narrative we take the best stock we can of the world and our predicament in it. What we see and recreate is seldom the blinding literal truth. Instead, we perceive and respond to our surroundings in narrow ways that most benefit our organismic selves. The narrative genius of Homo sapiens is an accommodation to the inherent inability of the three pounds of our sensory system and brain to process more than a minute fraction of the information the environment pours into them. In order to keep the organism alive, that fraction must be intensely and accurately selective. The stories we tell ourselves and others are our survival manuals.
With new tools and models, neuroscientists are drawing close to an understanding of the conscious mind as narrative generator. They view it as an adaptive flood of scenarios created continuously by the working brain. Whether set in the past, present, or future, whether fictive or reality based, the free-running constructions are our only simulacrum of the world outside the brain. They are everything we will ever possess as individuals. And, minute by minute, they determine whether we live or die.
The present in particular is constructed from sensations very far in excess of what can be put into the simulacrum. Working at a frantic pace, the brain summons memoriespast scenariosto help screen and organize the incoming chaos. It simultaneously creates imaginary scenarios to create fields of competing options, the process we call decision-making. Only a tiny fraction of the narrative fragmentsthe focusis selected for higher-order processing in the prefrontal cortex. That segment constitutes the theater of running symbolic imagery we call the conscious mind.
During the story-building process, the past is reworked and returned to memory storage. Through repeated cycles of recall and supplementation the brain holds on to shrinking segments of the former conscious states. Across generations the most important among these fragments are communicated widely and converted into history, literature, and oral tradition. If altered enough, they become legend and myth. The rest disappear. The story I have just told you about Mesozoic ants is all true as best I can reconstruct it from my memory and notes. But it is only a little bit of the whole truth, most of which is beyond my retrieval no matter how hard I might try.
This brings me to the relation between science and literature. Science is not a subculture separate from that of literature. Its knowledge is the totality of what humanity can verify about the real world, testable by repeated experiment or factual observation, bound to related information by general principles, and - - this is the part most often missedultimately subject to cause- and-effect explanations consilient across the full range of disciplines. The most democratic of human mental activity, it comprises the nonfiction stories you can take to the bank.
Everyone can understand the process of science, and, once familiar with a modest amount of factual information and the elementary terminology of particular disciplines, he or she can grasp the intuitive essence of at least some scientific knowledge. But the scientific method is not natural to the human mind. The phenomena it explicates are by and large unfamiliar to ordinary experience. New scientific facts and workable theories, the silver and gold of the scientific enterprise, come slow and hard, less like nuggets lying on a streambed than ore dug from mines. To enjoy them while maintaining an effective critical attitude requires mental discipline. The reason, again, is the innate constraints of the human brain. Gossip and music flow easily through the human mind, because the brain is genetically predisposed to receive them. Theirs is a Paleolithic cogency. Calculus and reagent chemistry, in contrast, come hard, like ballet on pointe. They have become relevant only in modern, postevolutionary times. Of the hundreds of fellow scientists I have known for more than fifty years, from graduate students to Nobelists, all generally prefer at random moments of their lives to listen to gossip and music rather than to scientific lectures. Trust me: physics is hard even for physicists. Somewhere on a distant planet, there may exist a species that hereditarily despises gossip and thrives on calculus. But I doubt it.
The central task of science writing for a broad audience is, in consequence, how to make science human and enjoyable without betraying nature. The best writers achieve that end by two means. They present the phenomena as a narrative, whether historical, evolutionary, or phenomenological, and they treat the scientists as protagonists in a story that contains, at least in muted form, the mythic elements of challenge and triumph.
To wring honest journalism and literature from honest science, the writer must overcome formidable difficulties. First is the immensity and exponential growth of the primary material itself, which has experienced a phenomenally short doubling time of fifteen years for over three hundred years, all the while coupled with a similarly advancing technology. It has spread its reach into every conceivable aspect of material existence, from the origin of the universe to the creative process of the mind itself. Its relentless pursuit of detail and theory long ago outstripped the minds of individual scientists themselves to hold it. So fragmented are the disciplines and specialized the language resulting from the growth that experts in one subject often cannot grasp the technical reports of experts in closely similar specialties. Insect neuroendocrinologists, for example, have a hard time understanding mammalian neuroendocrinologists, and the reverse. To see this change in science graphically you need only place opened issues of a premier journal such as Nature or Science from fifty years ago side by side with issues of the same journal today. The science writer must somehow thread his way into this polyglot activity, move to a promising sector of the front, and, then, accepting a responsibility the research scientists themselves typically avoid, turn the truth of it into a story interesting to a broad public.
A second obstacle to converting science into literature is the standard format of research reportage in the technical journals. Scientific results are by necessity couched in specialized language, trimmed for brevity, and delivered raw. Metaphor is unwelcome except in small homeopathic doses. Hyperbole, no matter how brilliant, spells death to a scientific reputation. Understatement and modesty, even false modesty, are preferred, because in science discovery counts for everything and personal style next to nothing.
In pure literature, metaphor and personal style are, in polar contrast, everything. The creative writer, unlike the scientist, seeks channels of cognitional and emotional expression already deeply carved by instinct and culture. The most successful innovator in literature is an honest illusionist. His product, as Picasso said of visual art, is the lie that helps us to see the truth. Imagery, phrasing, and analogy in pure literature are not crafted to report empirical facts. They are instead the vehicles by which the writer transfers his own feelings directly into the minds of his readers in order to evoke the same emotional response.
The central role of pure literature is the transmission of the details of human experience by artifice that directs aesthetic reaction. Originality and power of metaphor, not new facts and theory, are coin of the realm in creative writing. Their source is an intuitive understanding of human nature as opposed to an accurate knowledge of the material world, at least in the literal, quantifiable form required for science. Metaphor in the best writing strikes the mind in an idiosyncratic manner. Its effect ripples out in a hypertext of culture-bound meaning, yet it triggers emotions that transcend culture. Technical scientific reporting tries to achieve exactly the reverse: it narrows meaning and avoids metaphor in order to preserve literalness and repeatability. It saves emotional resonance for another day and venue.
To illustrate the difference, I’ve contrived the following imaginary examples of the two forms of writing applied to the same subject, the search for life in a deep cave: SCIENCE. The central shaft of the cavern descends from the vegetated rim to the oblique slope of fallen rock at the bottom, reaching a maximum depth of 86 meters before giving way to a lateral channel. On the floor of this latter passageway we found a small assemblage of troglobitic invertebrates, including two previously undescribed eyeless species of the carabid subfamily Bembidini (see also Harrison, in press).
LETTERS. After an hour’s rappel through the Hadean darkness we at last reached the floor of the shaft almost 300 feet below the fern- lined rim. From there we worked our way downward across a screelike rubble to the very bottom. Our headlamps picked out the lateral cavern exactly where Romero’s 1926 map claimed it to be. Rick pushed ahead and within minutes shouted back that he had found blind, white cave inhabitants. When we caught up, he pointed to scurrying insects he said were springtails and, to round out the day, at least two species of ground beetles new to science.
In drawing these distinctions in the rules of play, I do not mean to depict scientists as stony Pecksniffs. Quite the contrary. They vary enormously in temperament, probably to the same degree as a random sample from the nonscientific population. Their conferences and seminars are indistinguishable in hubbub from business conventions. Nothing so resembles an ecstatic prospector as a scientist with an important discovery to report to colleagues, to family, to grant officers, to anyone who will listen.
A scientist who has made an important discovery is as much inclined to show off and celebrate as anyone else. Actually, this can be accomplished in a technical article, if done cautiously. The heart of such a report is always the Methods and Materials, followed by Results, all of which must read like your annual tax report. But up front there is also the Introduction, where the author briefly explains the significance of the topic, what was known about it previously, who made the previous principal advances, and what aspect of the whole the author’s own findings are meant to address. A smidgen of excitement, maybe even a chaste metaphor or two, is allowed in the Introduction. Still more latitude is permitted for the Discussion, which follows the Results. Here the writer is expected to expatiate on the data and hypotheses as inclination demands. He or she may also push the envelope and make cautious guesses about what lies ahead for future researchers. However, there must be no outbursts such as, “I was excited to find . . .” or “This is certain to be a major advance.” Science writers are in the difficult position of locating themselves somewhere between the two stylistic poles of literature and science. They risk appearing both as journalists to the literati and as amateurs to the scientists. But these judgments, if made, are ignorant and unfair. Enormous room for original thought and expression exists in science writing. Its potential is nothing less than the establishment of what Sir Charles Snow called the third culture, a concept also recently promoted by the author and literary agent John Brockman.
The position nearest the literary pole is that broadly classified as nature writing. With roots going back to nineteenth- century romanticism, it cultivates the facts and theories of science but relies heavily on personal narrative and aesthetic expression. Thanks to writers of the first rank such as Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Bill McKibben, David Quammen, and Jonathan Weimer (a representative but far from exclusive list!), nature writing has become a distinctive American art form.
The pole nearest science is occupied primarily by scientists who choose to deliver their dispatches from the front to a broader public. Ranging from memoirs to philosophical accounts of entire disciplines, their writing resonates with a certain firsthand authority but is constrained to modesty in emotional expression by the conventions of their principal trade. Writing scientists also frequently struggle with the handicap imposed by the lack of connection of their subject to ordinary human experience: few tingles of the spine come from bacterial genetics, and generally the only tears over physical chemistry come as a result of trying to learn it.
Despite the inherent difficulties, science writing is bound to grow in influence, because it is the best way to bridge the two cultures into which civilization is still split. Most educated people who are not professionals in the field do not understand science and technology, despite the profound effect of these juggernauts of modernity on every aspect of their lives. Symmetrically, most scientists are semiliterate journeymen with respect to the humanities. They are thus correspondingly removed from the heart and spirit of our species. How to solve this problem is more than just a puzzle for creative writers. It is, if you will permit a scientist a strong narrative-laden metaphor, the central challenge of education in the twenty-first century.
Edward O. Wilson
The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2001
Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company Introduction copyright © 2001 by Edward O. Wilson
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