Democracy and DNA: American Dreams and Medical Progress.
The Revolution of Everyday Life
The job of the science popularizer is to reveal to the common reader the world of interest that scientists find coiled in reality's rope. But this is a tricky business, because science plays head games that most people don't like. When people try to grasp that scientific truth is"objective" and "verifiable" while at the same time open to endless revision and vulnerable to misinterpretation, they get understandably frustrated. New scientific discoveries, while exciting, are also nerve-wracking because people have learned to anticipate unforeseen and unwanted side effects. Worst of all, the cosmological news that science throws against the average persons door each morning is dismal. That our bibles speak in mere metaphors, that our ancestors are howling, humping, skittering critters, that our sun, even our universe, will end in nothingness, and that our mental apparatus can never directly apprehend the Real - none of this plays well to a crowd hungry for certainty and hope.
Science popularizers must finesse all that. They must somehow get readers engaged in whats simply wondrous and moving about the scientific enterprise, Iimits included, and persuade us to eat lustily from science's tree of knowledge without guilt, terror, regret or shame. Like any seducer, pop-sci has its routines. All three of these authors attack sciences rival, irrationality, in its many earthly and spiritual forms, all confess their personal love for science., all solicit support for their favorite discipline's research budget@ and all regale readers with tales and observations they believe will turn inertstrings of scientific explanation into something at least as amusing as a rope trick. Yet each has a different strategy for getting his rope to rise and each enjoy - or suffers - a very different degree of success.
Gerald Weissmann's unfortunate strategy is to hang himself with an untenable string of historical connections. He claims that modem DNA research ascends in a direct line from the nineteenth-century Anglo-American tradition of meliorism, and we should therefore love it. By"meliorism", a word he has borrowed from George Eliot, he means the practice of putting rationalist science in social service to humanity. Humanitarian rationalism is, says Weissmann, the main source of the sanitary, bacteriological and molecular revolutions in medicine and now the proliferation of genetic research.
Weissmann's ideal meliorist is Oliver Wendell Holmes, the nineteenth-century doctor, essayist and abolitionist. In the original Dr. Holmes, Weissmann finds an ur-detective whose deductive leaps were far more splendid than those of that coke-hearted bloodhound, Sherlock. Sherlock's detective work may send a shiver up a reader's spine, but Oliver's saved the lives of thousands of flesh-and-blood women, because he solved the real-life mystery of how doctors and nurses spread the germs that still cause childbed fever. Its a nice point about how we construct culture heroes, but A. Conan Doyle was so much better at creating the myth of Sherlock than Weissmann is at resuscitating the memory of Oliver Wendell that the reader only ends up feeling hectored for preferring the wrong Holmes.
Similarly, when Weissmann eulogizes Americas first woman doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell, he pastes her up so hastily, using such ghastly clots of speech, it's hard to feel the reverence toward her she deserves.
The facts are impressive: Blackwell, although barred on account of her sex from taking the full syllabus, managed to graduate from med school. Tragically, her hopes of becoming a surgeon were destroyed by an accident impairing her vision. It was the sort of thing that would have sent Alice James to her bed for life, but brave Dr. Blackwell went on to found and run public health institutes and medical schools for women. We should be inspired, but Blackwell pluck turns to Weissmann gunk in lines like,If the James family seemed to have a serpent in its blood-in the phrase of William James - the Blackwells had a colt."
What, you may ask, does it mean to have a colt in your familys blood? Everyone is frisky? Youthful? Spindly-legged? Unweaned? He doesn't explain. And even if he did, while its not too hard to imagine James's snake insinuating itself in some metaphorical fashion into a figurative vascular system, any kind of colt galloping (or frisking or wobbling) through a Blackwell artery seems incongruous, if not downright painful.
Weissmann, who clumsily woos our affection for medicine-as-he-loves-it, turns crafty when he solicits our trust in researchas-he-hopes-we-will-fund-it. First he softens us up with a show of decency, denouncing unethical science (like Nazi eugenics) with righteous vehemence. Then he shifts from bait to switch, thrusting forward as the contemporary heirs of Holmes and Blackwell a suspiciously shady lot. Would you, for example, buy David Baltimore as a the-liorist hero? How about the young James Watson and Francis Crick?
By their separate accounts, neither Watson nor Crick was concerned with the humanitarian application of his pioneering work on DNA structure. In unlocking"the secret of life" Crick hoped to solve an important problem in academic biology, and Watson sought a Nobel. In pursuit of these ambitions, the ethically impaired Watson and Crick actually stole data from the lab of radiographers Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin-the research pioneer whose "belligerent" feminism and lack of sartorial femininity young Watson's memoir denigrated with savage glee. Watson and Crick have since shed much of their callow, fratty twerpiness to mature and mellow, but emotional growth spurts are not historically retroactive. So for Weissmann to rewrite history by dressing up the Double Helix boys in Elizabeth Blackwells flayed skin is positively creepy.
If proposing the juvenile Watson and Crick as meliorists takes baldfaced chutzpah, proffering David Baltimore as a descendant of Oliver Wendell Holmes,requires a censors hidden hard-on for hypocrisy. Holmes, remember, dared to criticize the sanitary habits of his own profession. Baltimore, conversely, has treated criticism of his work as treason. Having signed off on shoddily documented-possibly falsified-data, he tried to ruin the career of Margot O'Toole, a young scientist who publicly objected. Obviously O'Toole, not Baltimore, is the true heir to Dr. Holmes in this saga. Yet Weissmann never mentions her.
What Weissmann never mentions could fill a book - and should have. He is some sort of meliorist himself - a discoverer of the anti-inflammatory drug TLC C-53 and an expert in immunology at Manhattan's public hospital, Bellevue - so it might have been interesting to learn what he thinks the great medical potential of DNA research is, or on what grounds he equates the ethical ambiguities of genetic engineering with the simple benefits of good sanitation, or why he's so convinced that democracy is alive and well in the increasingly corporatized world of medical research. But instead of developing his arguments, Weissmann wastes pages sneering at the depravities of popular culture, a bit of snobbery that's all the more pathetic given that two hit TV shows devoted to heroic meliorism-ER and Chicago Hope - do a far better job of marketing Blackwell's and Holmess legacy than does Democracy and DNA.
Whereas Weissmanns approach is Lego-like - he stands moral midgets on the shoulders of medical giants-astronomy buff Carl Sagans strategy of public entrancement is ballistic. Find the enemy, decimate his argument, with momentum undiminished, decimate all similar enemies. Mission@ Bust into the readers mind and explode irrationality with the superior force of scientific reason. Because Sagan is entranced by scientific efforts to detect intelligent life in space, he begins by blasting the most amusing of the irrationalist creeds that compete with his project-the cult of U.F.O.s and alien abductions. Just because there have been over a million sightings of U.F.O.s since I 1947, he explains, and just because many sane, honest people have seen aliens or believe that they have had unpleasant sex with them, does not constitute credible evidence that these space creatures exist. He concludes that these intense experiences of alien abductions and U.F.O.S must be some sort of mental twitch similar to the visions of witches, faeries and mortal-impregnating sky-gods common to human cultures throughout history.
Because the atavistic, demon-haunted parts of our minds lie to us so easily and so convincingly, Sagan wants people to learn to verify information before believing it. He offers excellent checklists for evaluating evidence that should be posted next to the Ten Commandments in every Supreme Court-approved school. Sagan can make his case for rational thinking attractive and imperative. The quotes from letters he's received in response to his column in Parade magazine, added to his yardlong laundry list of crackpot or credulous beliefs now in circulation, makes you want to round up everyone in the mall and bus them off to Carl Sagan Re-education Camp. You root for him when he takes on bigotry (Satan is running the U.N., blacks have lower I.Q.s, women are naturally less skeptical). You sigh when he tackles wishful credulity felvis is alive, minds bend spoons, prayer cures plague). You blow him a kiss when he denounces intellectual rigidity (all "infallible" religious dogma and autocratic tyranny) or when he passionately plugs the continuously revised, self-critical approach to never-obtainable Truth that characterizes science at its purest. Its almost enough to make you overlook what he doesn't get, which is what human life is like.
Sagan knows that our brains are a mix of lizard, ape and human, but can't digest the information. He is uncomfortable with the flip-flop most people do between magic and logic, self-medication and truth-seeking. He knows that"hope can be transformed into biochemistry" - at least for those unskeptical enough to believe in placebos - but the truth is, he'd rather you suffered from a verifiable disease than get relief from an illusory cure. He fails to imagine how people can sustain paradoxes. "Except by sealing the brain off into airtight ... compartments, how is it possible to ... take antibiotics while holding that... all Sagittarians are gregarious and affable?" he wonders. But, of course, its easy. Especially for Geminis.
Like his idol, perpetual revolutionary and deist Tom Paine, Sagan makes reason his religion. He looks to the implacable, vastly diverse and confoundingly magnificent cosmos to inspire him with awe. Its a majestic vision, but psychologically its Slim-Fast. You want to say@ Face it, Carl, awe is divine, but if some psycho machineguns the kindergarten, the community won't be turning to Galileo for solace.
Sagan's biggest error is the most common one made by all who long for a better world-the vain fallacy that everyone would be better off if only they were more like him. "Why in all America," he moans, "is there no TV drama that has as its hero someone devoted to figuring out how the Universe works?" Sure, Carl, and while were at it, how about a hero who loves Reason and who's always wondering what kind of signals aliens might recognize as intelligent. Don't touch that dial.
Because Sagan misdiagnoses human emotion as a mere problem, he begins to resemble the popular caricature of the scientist is a half-man- all brain and no heart. Consequently, his paean to the power of rationality often feels more like a mouthful of Pop Rocks than a Starburst of revelation. As for his notion that democracy can't survive scientific illiteracy, all the evidence isn't in, but preliminary studies indicate that a person to whom the Virgin Mary has appeared on a taco can be as good a judge of character as a certain expert on immunology at a certain great public hospital in Manhattan.
Stephen Jay Gould courts a smaller public than Sagan and holds it closer to his heart. Unlike Weissmann or Sagan, he assumes a reader of whom he approves, sort of a date from the New York Review of books Personals who shares his pleasure in literature, moviegoing, travel, discussion, storytelling, metaphor, moralizing and self-conscious narratives of meta-thought. Consequently most of his essays feel more collegial than corrective, and when Gould actually is correcting you, he is always gracious, even flattering - a most pleasant courtesy, however transparently manipulative.
Gould is one of the few science pitchmen writing today who doesn't, at least in print, get all sweatily defensive about the inviolate objectivity of Plancks Constant whenever a feminist, deconstructionist or other bubble-pricker challenges sciences buried assumptions. "The human mind," as he acknowledges, "is both an amazing instrument and a fierce impediment, and the mind must be interposed between observation and understanding." He praises what Sagan calls sciences error-correction machinery", and scientists, open-mindedness to new ideas, but whereas Sagan merely concedes that ego problems sometimes arise, Gould describes vividly how an old guard can shower new theories with decades of dunderheaded vituperation before seeing the light.
Where Weissmann relies on hero worship and Sagan on threats of the coming Dark Ages to coax readers into a receptive mood for theory, Gould turns to metaphor. He likes to make seemingly incongruent details illuminate similar principles and ideas. He uses Shakespeare's Cordelia, for example, to discuss "negative results" in science - data that get ignored when they fail to satisfy our taste for event-driven narrative. Just as Lear couldn't "hear" his daughter's silence as an expression of love, publishers bypass studies that show little or no difference in the lateralization of mens and womens brains in favor of the fewer but narratively "louder", papers that show that sex differences in brains are pronounced. Similarly, examples of evolution that imply "forward", motion get more public attention than equally significant findings that show evolution going sideways or in circles.
Thus, stroking, bowing and connecting dots, Gould charms you through science's dark wood, past the minds beastly biases for progressive narrative over static fact, easy duality over subtle gradation and moral projection over actual evidence. Often enough he leads you into a bright clearing wherein you experience satisfyingly close encounters with evolution's alien processes and that still stranger phenomenon, the evolution of evolutionary theory itself. Unlike Weissmann and Sagan, Gould enjoys crafting essays. Although Dinosaur in a Haystack is his seventh collection and suffers from his usual spells of redundancy and clunkiness, he can still be surprisingly fresh. He's a responsible writer, a methodical thinker and a contagiously enthusiastic fan of science's counterintuitive surprises. At his most adept, Goulds educational rope trickery rivals the fakirs hocus-pocus.
That is, unless you think the Bible is the Word of God. One of the Brooklyn-to-Harvard climbers, Gould is a scrapper by nature and a compromiser by persuasion. All that self-editing gives him at times the annoying odor of inauthenticity we're accustomed to sniffing on the breath of Democratic Party candidates. He can speak in such tolerant and patient tones about mainstream religious leaders that you may want to nail him to a cross. But show him a creationist with whom he cannot imagine negotiating and he rips off the hair shirt of moderation to fairly hop up and down with combative joy. In writing about the evolution of the whale, when fossil evidence turns up that trounces longstanding challenges by biblical literalists, he shouts with adorably boyish exuberance: "We have met the enemy and he is ours now." If only. Sagan, Weissmann and Gould all attempt to re@ solve the ancient rivalry between religion and science in some way - and all fail. But no matter. Religion is not yet the worst of science's worries.
The key problem that no science popularizer has yet solved is that the public abhors a moral vacuum, whereas science operates best within one. So when the public gains sway over research, scientists get stupidly censored, and when the public has no sway, people are unprotected. Sagan and Gould call for more ethical responsibility on the part of scientists in our atomic, enviromnentally challenged age@ but as Margot O'Toole can tell you (and Weissmann teaches by example), ethical self-policing in the sciences is a travesty. Underlings get smashed if they protest discrimination or malfeasance by their superiors, and senior scientists as a group won't even consider disciplining colleagues merely for breaking the public trust. Colluding with industry to produce toxic products, for example, is considered a dicey professional choice but hardly a punishable breach of sciences meliorist mission.
Clearly, citizens need new, improved ways in which to collaborate with scientists, ways to direct research toward the public good as distinct from private profit, and ways to protect scientific findings from abuse by political and commercial interests. As any Unabomber can tell you, the issue isn't God, its power. Lack of control over the direction and use of science, more than lack of rationality or education, is what underlies most peoples fear of science's gorgeous dynamism. This is as true of the readers of Parade to whom Sagan lectures so sternly as of the urbane, literate coterie with whom Gould so generously shares. As the shadows of job obsolescence, nuclear proliferation and ecological disaster gather at our backs, rather than simply begging us all to support unfettered scientific research, these emissaries would do well to suggest better ways of supporting increasingly fettered us.