The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   79

"A Glorious Accident"

Understanding Our Place in the Cosmic Puzzle

by Wim Kayzer

New York: W. H. Freeman, 1997

Five Luminaries, a Crank --- and a Twit

Wim Kayzer is a Dutch journalist; this book, a companion to a TV series, consists of Kayzer's interviews with six well-known intellectuals of a more or less scientific cast, and a general discussion he moderated between them. Five of those intellectuals --- Daniel Dennett, Freeman Dyson, Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks, and Stephen Toulmin --- are eminently worthy of respect; one is a crank: Rupert Sheldrake. It says a great deal about Kayzer's own intellectual virtues that he puts a crackpot like Sheldrake in the same category as the other men.

In fact, Kayzer is a crippling flaw in what might otherwise have been a fascinating project. He is, first, a romantic in the worst sense of the word. (Assembling people whose claim our attention because of their mature intellectual works in specific disciplines, he asks them about what they felt as children, and questions "of the loftiest depth".) He is, second, an idiot. (Bothering with Sheldrake is sufficient evidence of this.) He is, third, someone whose thoughts come out of cans --- you can see him opening the cans. There are many such lines of canned goods; Kayzer favors the brand popular among those well-intentioned and ineffectual Westerners who have been "educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought," those who used to be called bien pensers. ("Evil" equals "Auschwitz and Vietnam" --- it's always Auschwitz, never Dachau; "physics" was once bad and reductionist, but is now comfortingly mystical; people are mean because we're descended from "killer apes" and have "reptile brains".) I'm sorry to say that the interviewees --- with the glorious exception of Gould --- let Kayzer wallow in his vices. (I don't, dammit, care what Toulmin's father was like, I want to know why Toulmin says such peculiar things about Descartes, and whether or not he's right.) This is not to say that we don't get some taste of their learning and intelligence --- with the dreadful exception of Sheldrake, who hasn't any --- but that there's much too little of this.

The final roundtable is more successful than the individual interviews, at least once the people with their heads plugged in shut Sheldrake up. There are some intriguing arguments here, and some interesting connections get made. One really couldn't hope much more, though of course this disappoints Kayzer, who visibly expected these "wise men" (his phrase) to serve up with the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. It would have been nice if, instead of Sheldrake, Kayzer had had the wit to get hold of someone who participated in modern science, but didn't grow up in the western cultural tradition --- the late Abdus Salam, say, who was one of the great physicists of the century, a devout Muslim, and alive and well when the program was being filmed. This wouldn't have gotten any closer to the meaning of life, of course, but it would have eliminated some moments when my response was to mutter "What do you mean 'we', white boy?"

Between those moments, Kayzer's canned thinking, and egregiously bad copy-editing (p. 92: "Civil Rights' famous evolution theory" --- as opposed to the obscure evolutionary theory of Sewall Wright, I suppose), this book simply is not worth the price.

xiv + 306 pp.
Mind, Consciousness, etc. / Philosophy / Popular Science
Currently in print as a hardback, US$24.95, ISBN 0-7167-3144-4. LoC Q162 G56
9 April 1999