[That's odd. I x-posted what I wrote on the Valve yesterday, but it didn't stick. Now it will. Be sure to read the comments over there, as they're already quite substantial.]
...is a novel?
Jonah Lehrer links to The Guardian‘s account of the Royal Institution of London’s crowning Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table “The Best Scientific Book Ever Written.” Not that Levi’s quasi-modernist memoir doesn’t deserve acclaim. Every chapter’s prefixed by an element which plays some crucial part in the plot or symbolizes—like Linati’s Joycean kidney, with all its attendant frustrations—some moment of personal, cultural or historical of import. It’s brilliantly executed—but its brilliance lies in Levi’s deft imbrication of the scientific and the personal, the personal and the historical, the scientific and the historical, &c. The Periodic Table is not a scientific work with literary merit, but a literary work informed, to take one example, by practical applications of modern chemistry. I wouldn’t complain, except that books like Levi’s receive lay-praise daily. More worthy of celebration is the rare scientific book able to move a public forever on the brink of scientific illiteracy.
I don’t want to rehearse the thesis of Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots here, but the Royal Institution’s inclusion of Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle over On The Origin of Species on the shortlist demands it.* The Voyage of the Beagle is an important but utterly conventional document in literary and scientific history. It lacks The Origin‘s novelistic flair.
The sense that everything is connected, though the connections may be obscured, gave urgency to the enterprise of uncovering such connections. This was the form of plotting crucial to Dickens’s work, as we can see, for example, in Bleak House, where the fifty-six named—and many more unnamed—characters all turn out to be related by way either of concealed descent (Esther and Lady Deadlock) or of economic dependency ("The dependency of one organic being on another, as of a parasite on its prey, lies generally between beings remote in scale of nature") .... As [Bleak House] proceeds the immense assemblage of apparently contingent characters is ordered and reordered into multiple sets of relations so that we discover that all of them are interdependent. What at first looks like agglomeration proves to be analysable connection.
The unruly superfluity of Darwin’s material at first gives an impression of superfecundity without design. Only gradually and retrospectively does the force of the argument emerge from the profusion of example. (42)
Darwin accomplished in The Origin what the popular explication of Pinker’s The Blank Slate doesn’t even attempt: namely, to explain a scientific concept in all its complexity to a world which mostly only understood novels. Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene actually moves in the opposite direction—it is most powerful when Dawkins oversimplifies, e.g. when he reduces lived complexity into “memes.” (The Dawkins and Pinker books were also shortlisted.)
I suppose my bias shows here, but I think Darwin’s literary-scientific achievement in The Origin towers over the solid work of popularization, The Voyage included.
*That second link takes you to the E.O. Wilson-introduced collection Adam Gopnik recently reviewed for The New Yorker.