Darlings, you were wonderful
By Robert Matthews 3.6.1995
The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution
by John Brockman
Simon & Schuster, pp 413, pounds 17.99
LYNN can't stand Richard, and Francisco loathes Marvin. Nick thinks Steve and Richard should kiss and make up and no one understands Brian.
The plot of a soap opera? Not a bit of it: all these characters are scientists, and well-respected ones at that: Lynn Margulis, Richard Dawkins, Francisco Varela, Marvin Minsky, Nick Humphrey, Stephen Jay Gould and Brian Goodwin. They are also members of what literary agent John Brockman calls "the Third Culture" - scientists who transcend the two-culture divide between the arts and sciences by taking their message direct to the public.
But if the smugness, mutual antagonism and sheer bloody-mindedness that emerge from Brockman's astonishing collection of edited interviews is anything to go by, you wouldn't want to let members of this "culture" loose in a sandpit, let alone a salon.
Ostensibly, Brockman's book is a long-overdue antidote to the inane outpourings of our arts-dominated media. Newspapers, magazines, radio and TV all devote vast amounts of coverage to the thoughts and doings of luvvies, whose achievements are as ephemeral as the bubbles in their First Night champagne. Meanwhile, the work of scientists is dismissed as tiresome, tedious and infra dig.
Of course, most science is precisely that. Nevertheless, there are some genuine superstars in the scientific firmament, and Brockman's book brings together many of them to describe what they do and why.
There are worrying signs that Brockman has attempted to make luvvies out of scientists. Each chapter opens with a twee eulogy on the featured scientist written by one of his peers, along the lines of, "Dear, darling Dickie, such a wonderful evolutionary biologist". But don't be fooled: other contributors are given their say at the end of each chapter - and these people can sure bitch.
The book begins with chapters by seven leading figures in evolutionary biology, a field apparently dominated by the concept of survival of the loudest.
For some reason, Brockman decided to begin with the worst contribution in the entire book. It comes from George Williams of New York University, renowned for his critique of the mindless application of Darwinian ideas. Other luminaries such as Niles Eldredge say that they can't understand why more people haven't heard of him. Well, I hadn't heard of him either, but it's no mystery to me: judging by his chapter, Professor Williams could make threading a needle sound like quantum chromodynamics.
Try this, his second sentence: "Given that organisms may find themselves in an environment where there are close genealogical relatives, it follows that an organism is expected to react to cues of kinship in a certain way, so as to discriminate among the individuals it encounters on the basis of kinship, and be more benign and cooperative toward closer kin than more distant kin or nonrelatives." In other words, good parents don't usually kill their kids.
The commentaries from fellow contributors at the end of this awful first chapter are very much of the "Dear, dear Georgie" variety, but at least they contain clearer explanations of what Williams is on about than he manages himself.
Brockman's book really gets under way with chapter two, by Stephen Jay Gould. He can be a bit pompous ("Richard - Dawkins - and I are the two people who write about evolution best," he announces), but he is always entertaining and cogent. Clearly he doesn't agree with Dawkins and other "ultra-Darwinists" on how and where evolution takes place. Gould duly comes in for a bit of stick from other biologists in the comment section, and is rather loftily instructed to stop bickering by Nick Humphrey, the Cambridge psychologist.
Overall, however, Gould gets off lightly compared with some of his peers. For example, in the next chapter Dawkins gives a predictably clear and robust account of his interests and beliefs, but some people are clearly irked by his defence of Darwinism. Advocate of the Gaia hypothesis Lynn Margulis accuses him of solipsism, arrogance and pomposity, while theoretical biologist Brian Goodwin hints darkly that Dawkins was once religious and now preaches Darwinism with the fervour of a convert.
Naturally enough, Dawkins sticks the boot in at the end of their respective chapters, albeit in the genteel style of an Oxford don. So, Margulis has "courage and stamina", but simply doesn't listen to argument, while Goodwin has contracted the "crazy" ideas that pervade the Open University biology department.
But the evolutionary biologists are positively matey compared with those working on theories of the mind, the subject of the book's next section. Here we can enjoy the musings of Marvin Minsky on how the mind works, and then savour fellow Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Steve Pinker's trashing of them. ("Too much of his work comes out of armchair pronouncements," says Pinker).
For pure bile, try Francisco Varela of the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. He accuses Minsky ("A pain in the ass, an arrogant son of a bitch") of rejecting other people without bothering to find out what they think. How odd, then, that Varela appears to do precisely this with his dismissive comments on the work of contributor Roger Schank.
After so much bluster and shrillness, the words of physicists, which form the bulk of the rest of the book, come almost as a balm. The section "Questions of Origins", with its contributions from the urbane Martin Rees and Paul Davies, exudes the quiet confidence of those whose work is solidly faunded. Relativity expert Lee Smolin emerges as a valuable new force in the battle to explain tough ideas to the general public.
The book ends with contributions from researchers in "complexity theory - "broadly speaking, the attempt to discover how order can emerge from chaos. Although such leading figures as Nobel prizewinner Murray Gell-Mann are on hand to give their views, those who think complexity theory generates more heat than light will find plenty to confirm their suspicions.
If you are looking for clear expositions of ideas at the frontiers of science, you may not be well served by Brockman's book. Many of the chapters are the intellectual equivalent of a Chinese meal: you won't remember the arguments an hour after you read them. That is not Brockman's fault, of course: this is science in the making.
Brockman's book is far more valuable than just another bluffer's guide. It provides a rare and candid insight into the thought processes of leading scientists. As such, it is the most important book on how science is done since The Double Helix. ■
First published by New Scientist, March 6, 1995.