W.H. Freeman, NY.
Richard Morris is widely admired in the small world of
alternative presses and daring websites. A witty poet, Morris was the
publisher of Camels Coming Press and, more famously and most helpfully,
the executive director of COSMEP. The acronym stood for different things
in different years but it was basically a Committee of Small Magazine
Editors and Publishers. Richard edited an invaluable monthly newsletter
and answered every query by return mail.
Nevertheless, beginning in 1979, on the
side, Morris has written science books for commercial publishers. His
most recent book, The Evolutionists is his most involving.
I'm a mediocre birder who spends an occasional
night camping out in the Catskills or the Adirondacks. My most exotic
pet was an iguana. Academic biology ended for me with my freshman year
The polemic in The New York Review of Books
offends the birder and backpacker within. Such invective leads inevitably
to nicotine patches and Tums. Nature may be red in tooth and claw but
so is The New York Review. I have, in fact, out of medical necessity,
let my subscription lapse. Stephen Jay Gould is The New York Review's
favorite writer on biology. Worse yet, he also has a column in Natural
History, the magazine published at The American Museum of Natural
History. Until now, Gould was a writer I was certain to skip.
Morris, however, has sorted through Gould's friends
and foes and, without taking sides, rendered their ongoing debate meaningful
and even hip. I finally get the genome, emergence, species sorting, punctuated
evolution, the selfish gene. Morris also convinced me, inadvertently,
that evolutionary psychology has approximately the same truth as phrenology.
But that, too, is good to know.
The truth is, Morris loves science. He thinks
it's the truth. Most people, including myself, are highly ambivalent.
For instance, the evolutionists of Darwin's time observed that species
evolved first into many races. Some races prospered, some even evolved
into further species. Kipling was a great writer but the attitude behind
phrases like "lesser tribes without the Law" have placed him
forever in a strange moral limbo. Not long ago, Adolph Hitler was the
most famous such evolutionist. I doubt that God, if He exists, would put
Hitler in limbo.
But at the moment the real foes, to Morris, are
religious fundamentalists. Whether from homicidal, creationist, anti-abortionist
Christians or suicidal, polygamous, anti-democratic Mohammedans, many
now do truly tremble once again at priestly decree.
I loved The Evolutionists. I have
read it several times. Nevertheless, Assyrians, selected poems
published in 1991 by The Smith, remains to my mind his best book. Poetry
and fiction teach us about human nature. The best practical attempt at
a theory of human nature by scientists remains psychoanalysis. But biology
and evolution teach us, alas, only about biology and evolution.