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March 2004 (Volume 55, Number 10)

» Notes from the Editors
March 2004 (Volume 55, Number 10)
We were enormously pleased to publish in the November 2002 issue of MR Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins’s “Stephen Jay Gould: What Does it Mean to Be a Radical?” commemorating the life of their great Harvard colleague who had died earlier that year. Gould, as Lewontin and Levins explained, was, in addition to being one of the foremost evolutionary biologists and paleontologists of his time, “by far, the most widely known and influential expositor of science who has ever written for a lay public.” Their article has recently been reprinted as the concluding essay in Oliver Sacks, ed., The Best American Science Writing, 2003. This important series, with Jesse Cohen as the series editor, is published each year by HarperCollins, each time under the editorship of a different guest editor—in this instance Sacks, author of The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and many other works. In preparing this year’s volume Sacks chose to dedicate the book to Stephen Jay Gould, who he sees as the exemplary figure in modern science writing.

In addition to reprinting their MR article, this volume includes a contributors’ statement by Lewontin and Levins on their own scientific and political commitments. In the concluding paragraph of this statement they write:

In both the scientific and political sides of our efforts we intersected with Steve Gould in many ways. He shared our view of the complex and historically contingent nature of living systems and their evolution, and he was a political ally. One or the other of us, or both, taught jointly with Steve in courses on evolution and on biology and society. We worked together with him in Science for the People and the Sociobiology Study Group, struggling against naïve biological determinism. All three of us shared a feeling of distance from many of our colleagues and from Harvard as an institution. It seemed appropriate, then, that the editor of the Monthly Review should ask us to write a joint memorial to him.

Indeed, from our standpoint it was more than merely appropriate. Like Gould, both Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins—who have made important scientific contributions to genetics, the political economy of agriculture, population biology and ecology—have demonstrated in all of their work a radical commitment to a science that goes to the roots. Moreover, they have coupled this over the years with a dedication to science writing that presents this in easily accessible, nontechnical prose available to the nonspecialist reader. Nothing exemplifies this dual commitment on their part more than their important, even indispensable, work, The Dialectical Biologist.

We would like to add that MR readers (and especially authors) would benefit in many ways from a close reading of the Sacks volume—even if they are previously acquainted with the Lewontin and Levins article through MR. Apart from the sheer delight to be found in the essays in this collection, Oliver Sacks discusses in his introduction what, in his view, constitutes good science writing—and why this is important:

I am not entirely sure what makes “good” science writing (or indeed “good” writing of any sort), but Coleridge put it as succinctly as possible when he advised “proper words, in proper places.” The best science writing, it seems to me, has a swiftness and a naturalness, a transparency and a clarity, not clogged with pretentiousness or literary artifice. The science writer gives himself or herself to the subject completely, does not intrude on it in an annoying or impertinent way, and yet gives a personal warmth and perspective to every word. Science writing cannot be completely “objective”—how can it be, when science itself is so human an activity?—but it is never self-indulgently subjective either. It is, at best, a wonderful fusion, as factual as a news report, as imaginative as a novel.

Much of this reflects what we try to achieve in MR in general. Marx once wrote that “there is no royal road to science”—it is hard climbing all the way. So writing that aims at being “scientific” and at the same time radical (in the sense of going to the roots) is always very challenging for both the author and the reader.

But the result can open windows that allow for a more effective popular intervention in public life. The ongoing need in modern capitalist society for a radical critique of society (including science) makes this endeavor more important than ever.

István Mészáros’s book, Socialism or Barbarism (Monthly Review Press, 2001) is, in our view, one of the most important analyses of the world crisis engendered by the United States’ current attempt to reestablish and extend its hegemony over the world capitalist order. His book is all the more impressive since it was written well before the events of September 11, 2001. It has become evident that many others in the world besides ourselves are convinced of the brilliance of Socialism or Barbarism, since only a little more than two years after its first appearance it has already been translated into 11 languages, with two additional translations on their way.

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