I wish Nancy Angier had been my mother’s best friend while I was growing up, someone who we hung out with for Saturday night card games, Sunday picnics, and summer vacations. My mother has a wide-eyed embrace for life and adventure, and my father delves deep into the intracies of life on our planet (often not emerging for months)–most recently human life and longevity. Nancy (or her in-print persona) would have balanced them and help them find words for their experiences and observations.
I’ve been reading her rich survey of the major fields of science, The Canon, on the train to and from work. (It starts with a definition of science, which is reiterated throughout the book.) As I read, I think, no one person can have this large of a vocabulary and wield it so consistently and pointedly (and offhandedly) with wit and homage. I’ve reached a solid conclusion, or several: Nancy Angier is actually a small university working under the onus of a staff of editors with massive thesaural resources; Nancy Angier is a hive mind from space or the future; Nancy Angier is far more common than we know–we’re just too dumbed down to see more like her published.
I grew up with an interest in fossils, and like many kids had my pile of prehistoric flora and fauna toys and books. In high school and college, I studied paleoanthropology and eventually, the study of evolution (for fun). My bookshelves at home proudly display Stephen J. Gould’s big fat Structure of Evolutionary Theory among related works. I also have what I hope is a deep appreciation for other people’s spiritual beliefs, and have never seen a conflict between evolutionary (or other) science and those beliefs. (Let’s leave corkscrewed interpretations of doctrine out of it–that discussion just leads to bloody noses, TV evangelism, and car bombs.) To paraphrase Richard Feynman, science is about What, religion is about Why (because it’s very, very hard to answer Why).
So when I opened the chapter on evolutionary biology this morning and read her interview with David Wake, a biology professor at UC Berkeley, I wanted to kiss the book (not in a metaphorical attempt to plant one on Ms. Angier). He tells of his life growing up in a conservative Christian community and the words of his grandfather, a pastor and amateur naturalist, who didn’t see a conflict between his religion and his scientific knowledge, telling young David “that religion must always accommodate reality,” that we “live in the real world and must understand the world on its own empirical terms.” Or, to quote (via Angier) Thomas Dhobzansky, the Russian geneticist, “Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution.”
Yet, according to summarized survey data, about 35% of the people in this country question or discount evolution (especially if prefaced by the word “human”). Often because we don’t understand (and are not taught) the difference between the word “theory” and “conjecture” or “belief” or “opinion.” It’s wrong to lay that problem on the porch of religion, though–there are people out there who are just dumb as dirt or igner’nt as sin, and some of them stand behind a pulpit (or in other positions of power or leadership), and they lead their children into instead of out of the mists. A similar argument can be made for people who wield science to quash religion….
Back to the path. Even if you’re immersed in science and don’t understand the fuss, read her book. It’s not hard to skip over the wordy pulp to find the pith. She sometimes uses words for their own sake, like a logophile from Wales (where it’s said, why say something with 10 words when 100 will do). I’m not going to quote them here, because–unlike the cheese–they don’t stand alone. But they are such lovely words.