This book, The Best of the Best American Science Writing is just chock-full of what we love on this blog (in case you missed it, that’s science and writing)! If you missed my first review of the two essays selected from the year 2000, check it out here.
The year 2001 had two philosophical essays – “Bioscience, Guided by Ethics, Can Lift Up the Poor” by Freeman J. Dyson and “Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought” by the late evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayer.
Dyson’s essay was short and, in my opinion, inspirational if frustratingly vague. It was the kind of sweeping rhetoric one expects to see at a political convention – lots of grand statements, few practical applications, even fewer facts. The essay begins by explaining that there are two kinds of technology – green and grey – and that we are about to see a switch from grey technology domination (for the last 3000 years) to green technology domination.
Dyson makes it clear that he believes green technology could be a great equalizer, eradicating global poverty and creating sustainable environmental practices but not that it will do any of these things. He urges scientists, business leaders, and religious leaders to work together to promote ethics in association with green technology – the only guiding ethical principles he gives us are that the free market must not extend to human genes and that biological warfare is to be avoided. While I found the essay to be inspirational, galvanizing me to want to take action in a new and uncertain technological future, I also found it to lack application and thus usefulness. Luckily, the essay is a short call to action and thus you don’t waste time searching for practice when there is only theory. If you’re looking for something to pump you up before you volunteer to save the world, this essay is it.
Mayr’s essay is much harder to get through, using more dense terminology than Dyson’s essay; personally, I struggled to get through his section on a new philosophy of biology but adored the rest of the essay about Darwin’s influence on modern thought (and may just write a blog post about it!). The essay isn’t revolutionary in it’s content, more in it’s concept. Those of us who recently underwent any public schooling would be able to infer most of what Mayr is saying about how Darwin impacted the world. What seems to make this essay so important is that Mayr actually does say it, and all in one place. According to Mayr, Darwin has had a profound impact on religious thought, predetermination, our understanding of the ‘Perfect Cause’ (a philosophical idea since Aristotle), racism and typology, and more.
Mayr’s essay can get wordy – he is particularly prone to longer sentences. However, Mayr generally makes sure that when he introduces new terminology that he gives adequate time to explain it’s meaning (for example essentialism or teleology). Most readers will enjoy learning how Darwin has so drastically shaped our worldview in only 150 years; according to Mayr, he accomplished a lot in that time. His dedication to every reader’s understanding makes this essay a worthwhile undertaking for all readers, recently introduced to Darwinism or well acquainted.