Nature: The Tangled Bank "Excels"

By Carl Zimmer | September 30, 2009 9:07 pm

I had a sudden drop in blood pressure when I checked out the new issue of Nature today. Evolutionary biologist Laurence Hurst wrote a two-book review: Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show on Earth, and my own The Tangled Bank. I revived when I saw that my book held up under Hurst’s comparison: “The book is billed as the first textbook on evolution for the general reader, and in that framework, it excels.”

Hurst used his review to pose an interesting question. He contrasts my style, which he describes as “authoritative and easy to read” with that of Dawkins, who “emerges like a prize-fighter, knocking out of the ring all objections.” Hurst then asks, “So which is the better strategy for explaining the difference between fact and fantasy, that of the quiet American or that of the British Rottweiler?”

Here’s my answer: this is a false choice. Dawkins and I did not write the same kind of book. Mine is a textbook, and Dawkins’s is not. Reading Hurst trying to equate the two gave me a vision of a college class on evolution. Spotlights swirl around the lecture hall. The professor jogs in. He’s wearing gold trunks and boxing gloves. As he pumps his arms over his head, Gary Glitter blares from the loudspeakers.

“Who here doesn’t think there are any transitional forms in the fossil record?” he roars.

One student meekly raises his hand, and immediately receive a devastating left hook. As he fades out of consciousness, he hears the professor bellowing his trademark battle-cry, “Ambulocetus!”

I can’t speak about Dawkins’s latest book, not having read it yet. But I can speak to my own thinking as I wrote The Tangled Bank. I envisioned my potential readers as curious people who didn’t know much about evolution–what the idea actually is and how scientists study it. I envisioned people who might be interested in learning the nuts and bolts of processes like selection and drift, and who might be intrigued by sexually deceptive wasps, whales with legs, the viruses that dominate our genome, and other features of life that evolution allows us to understand. My readers may not hear Gary Glitter in their mental loudspeakers as they work their way through my book. But, if I succeed, the music should still be sweet.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, The Tangled Bank
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Comments (15)

  1. Totally agree, that is a false choice to pose to his readers. Wasn’t Dawkins also framing his book as an argumentative “answer” to Creationists? Talk about a completely different frame and approach between the two books.

  2. I agree that Hurst sets up a false choice between the books. Hurst also remarks near the end that neither your book nor Dawkins’s gives much sense of the questions that are still open in evolutionary biology. Not having read either book I have no idea whether that’s fair. What’s your take?

  3. NewEnglandBob

    What are the open issues according to Hurst? I can not see the Nature review.

  4. Gustaf

    I can’t get enough of Dawkins when it comes to his interesting interviews with fellow scientists, and hearing himself respond so eloquently to questions about science and religion. I can’t think of anyone who has aided my own reasoning in these topics as much. But as a writer I’ve always thought he’s uneven. Some parts are brilliant, other parts are rambling, too deep or too shallow. It appears he’s not one of those writers who spends a lot of time crafting the text. And while the constant quips on religion have entertainment value, he’s at his best when he sticks to his profession. Finally, I don’t understand why he insists on presenting hard topics with few or no images. These are all some reasons my expectations are high on The Tangled Bank.

  5. Greg

    Although my sample size is small of Dawkins’ works, I agree with Gustaf. The God Delusion started strong and remained so, and then it just peters out at the end, when he is getting around to more subjective areas. He tends to state his opinion and leave it at that, for example the chapters on comfort & the St. Bernard story/analogy. Is it surprising that Dawkins is strongest when his points are well supported by logic and evidence? Others do the emotional and philosophical arguments better (I’m thinking of Hitchens, Harris, and yes, Maher (for the ’emotional’ arguments)).

    I am looking forward to the Tangled Bank.

  6. Jdhuey

    Someway or somehow, I will find room on my bookshelf for both books.

  7. blueshifter

    hahahahaha

    wow, Carl – that was mad funny, son! I had no clue you could bring the comedy like that.

    “Ambuloceeeeeeeeeeetus!”

    hahahahaha

  8. Michael Heath

    I’m currently reading Dr. Dawkins’ TGSOE in light of having recently read Dr. Coyne’s WEIT. I thought Coyne presented a near-flawless argument, lacking only some additional beef regarding the evidence for evolution in our DNA which is easily supplemented with either Sean B. Carroll’s or Daniel Fairbank’s books on the subject. I’m only about 100 pages into Dawkins’ wordier book so no definitive position is yet available though Coyne set a high bar.

    I’ve always viewed Mr. Zimmer’s book as a textbook I plan to use more as a reference/tutorial book after reading (though I’m finding that Dawkins does have a tutorial-like format, Coyne’s is more pure report/argument). Prior to this blog post, I never considered comparing Tangled Bank to either Coyne or Dawkin’s books.

    I assume Ardi didn’t make it into the Tangled Bank?

    [Carl: Only in its earlier outlines. But that’s what new editions are for, right?]

  9. Ardi’s the next book. Or perhaps Ardi vs. Flores Woman.

    Carl, to me Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea is a textbook that one can read as if it were a novel.

  10. zhaphod

    I second Monado. The triumph of an idea stands out not only for the content but also for the prose.

  11. Carl,

    Well done! (not the blood pressure drop part of course).

    Claire

  12. Cmdr. Awesome

    ‘…Spotlights swirl around the lecture hall. The professor jogs in. He’s wearing gold trunks and boxing gloves. As he pumps his arms over his head, Gary Glitter blares from the loudspeakers.
    “Who here doesn’t think there are any transitional forms in the fossil record?” he roars.
    One student meekly raises his hand, and immediately receive a devastating left hook. As he fades out of consciousness, he hears the professor bellowing his trademark battle-cry, “Ambulocetus!”’

    Why is this NOT a part of every institution’s introductory evolution coursework?

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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