All the "Best American..." books are good because they are collections of the best writing, usually magazine writing, done in the year indicated. The series titles include Best American Science Writing, Best American Science and Nature Writing, Best American Essays, Best American Sports Writing, Best American Short Stories, even Best American Sex Writing. The essay choices are up to the person--always an illustrious figure, an expert--who edits each volume. For the year 2006 we have Dr. Atul Gawande, a famous surgeon and author of Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science (2002). Previous editors of the "Best...Science..." series have been James Gleick (2000), Timothy Ferris (2001), Matt Ridley (2002), Oliver Sacks (2003), Dava Sobel (2004), and Alan Lightman (2005).
I have read all or part of the entire series beginning in 2000, and while every collection has been interesting, even fascinating, this year's collection is particularly good. I say this because Gawande, in keeping close to his area of expertise, has chosen articles mainly in the fields of biology, medicine, computers and information theory, and evolution, and these happen to be fields that especially interest me. The emphasis in this volume then is on the so-called "soft" sciences rather than the "hard" ones, although not exclusively so. Moreover, Gawande has managed to find essays that are especially well-written. I was a bit dazzled at the wordsmithing ability of some of the writers to say nothing about the fascinating and informative content of their essays. In particular I want to point to Alan Weisman's "Earth Without People"; D. T. Max's "The Literary Darwinists"; Karen Wright's "The Day Everything Died"; Jack Hitt's "Mighty White of You"; and Paul Bloom's "Is God an Accident" as very impressive.
One of the reasons the essays are so good is that they first appeared in some of our best journals, including Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Discover, The New Yorker, et al. where they were scrupulously edited by some of the best editors working today. A good editor is a godsend for a writer, and a great editor can make the difference between a piece that is ordinary and one that is outstanding. Anyone wanting to improve their writing might read these essays for that reason alone.
Now just a few quick thoughts about some of the essays:
Alan Weisman achieves an eerie, sci fi mood in his "Earth without People" as he imagines how the planet might change if people suddenly disappeared. His insights come partly from recalling what the planet was like before humans came upon the scene, especially North America with its teeming mass of extinct large mammals.
Gardiner Harris and Anahad O'Connor point to the disconnect between scientific knowledge and the public's perception of what is likely true and what likely isn't in "On Autism's Cause, It's Parents vs. Research." It appears that there is almost no way that mercury in vaccines causes autism, yet there remains a hard core of parents of autistic children who believe otherwise. What I think this shows is that our personal experience--a sampling of one--is so persuasive that often we cannot put it aside regardless of the evidence.
H. Allen Orr demonstrates in his carefully composed essay "Devolution" that faith-based "intelligent design" might well be a sign of human devolution.
D. T. Max's "The Literary Darwinists" introduced me to a new slant on literary criticism, clearly a natural progression in postmodern thought: namely to subject literary works to examinations from Darwinian principles. Particularly delicious is evolutionary psychology as applied to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, which begins with this irresistible first line, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
What struck me as most instructive in Karen Wright's "The Day Everything Died," which is about the Permian extinction and the controversy surrounding it, is just how much more difficult it is to study something that happened a quarter of a billion years ago than it is to study something (the K-T extinction) that happened a mere 65 million years ago.
I absolutely loved Jack Hitt's, witty, satirical take on being Charlemagne's direct descendant (he is and so are you!), as he muses on Kennewick man and some not so subtle racism among those touting pre-Clovis humans in the Americas.
But my favorite piece in the book is Paul Bloom's "Is God an Accident." Having recently read Sam Harris' The End of Faith (2005) and other works, I somehow felt in total understanding about why humans believe impossible (or at least very unlikely) things. Clearly religion exists in all societies because it is adaptive and contributes to tribal cohesion which helps the tribe defeat other tribes in warfare, etc. However Bloom's essay broadened my understanding. His argument is that religion is essentially a kind of hardwired dualism in our brains that came about because we have two simultaneous ways of perceiving the world, one physical and the other social. Our social perceptions result in a belief system based on minds, that is what others may think and what may be possible in manipulating the content of minds vis-a-vis real world objects, e.g., coming up with unicorns and holy fathers with bad tempers. Consequently it feels right for us to believe in things unseen, unheard, undemonstrated.
I also liked the last essay in the book, Frans B. M. de Waal's short piece on why "We're All Machiavellians," a "truth" he learned from watching chimpanzees. His asks why don't we just admit to our lust to power? It is so obvious. Instead we and especially our politicians pretend we are "public servants" and it is other people who want power.
In short, this is the most readable collection of science essays that I have read in recent years.