Last fall, I found the 2004 and 2005 editions of the Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology (BASNW) on the remainder table at Munro’s Books, and read them with pleasure. I have since bought and read the 2006 edition, and the 2005 and 2006 editions of Best American Science Writing (BASW). BASNW is part of Houghton Mifflin’s franchise Best American series, and BASW is a Harper Perennial. The same authors turn up in both publications. Each publication has a professional editor and a sort of celebrity guest editor. BASNW has had Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and E.O. Wilson, among others. The choice of articles and essays depends on the vagaries of editorial taste. The writing is excellent. The lists of authors include Oliver Sacks, David Quammen, Natalie Angier, Steven Pinker, Frans de Waal – scientists who write well, or good writers who understood science.
The 2005 BASW included “On the Origins of the Mind” by David Berlinski. It is an elegant and informative essay, which applies the methods of mathematical epistemology to the field of evolutionary psychology. He starts with a quote from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, “It’s all scientific stuff; it’s all been proved. He asks, in an elegant way, whether evolutionary psychology, has presented a coherent scientific explanation of the mind. The current thinking, he says, is built on three similes, none of which has been proven (1) the mind is like a computer, (2) the mind is like any other organ of the body, and (3) the mind is like any other biological artifact.
He mentions Pinker and other evolutionary psychologists but his real targets are Dawkins and Dennett, who claim scientific validity for a mystical theory of evolutionary ascent. He doesn’t dispute the idea that human behaviour is based on brain structure and biology, but he disputes the idea of genetic determinism, in its popular form, which finds evolutionary causes for every human preference. Dawkins and Dennett, who should know better, often imply that evolution is purposeful. They have invented the catchy and wonderfully simple idea that ideas are like genes or viruses. This idea is popular and “sticky”, but it is an exercise in persuasive rhetoric. . Berlinski argues their ideas are imprecise verbal representations of the nature of things. His standards are so rigorous that his critique of evolutionary psychology seems unfair, but his point that Dawkins and Dennett are making grand claims based on limited facts seems sound. Their big ideas tend to fall, ironically, into a Romantic, presentation of naturalism.
David Berlinski has a Ph. D in philosophy, and had an academic life, but he is better known for his books about the history of mathematics. His hostility to Dawkins and Dennett has brought him into an affiliation with conservative and religious publications and organizations, who promote him as an intellectual counterweight to the anti-religious rhetoric of Dawkins et al. Berlinski’s essay was first published in Commentary, and is available online. Berlinski’s reputation, for some, is clouded by his involvement with the Discovery Institute, which associates him with the Intelligent Design movement. The Wikipedia entry on David Berlinski, as it reads today, implies that he shares certain perspectives with the DI.
This is unfortunate, because his article seems to me to well-reasoned, and because he shows a healthy skepticism about celebrity scientists with big ideas about the meaning of life.