Of all literary genres, the essay is perhaps the best known and most widely despised. This is probably because few people reach the end of their education without having been forced to write essays upon subjects of no interest whatever to them, and of precious little interest to their teachers either. For a long time after I left school the word “essay” connoted for me the instruction to compare and contrast, at quite unnatural length and for purposes completely opaque, the characters of Banquo and Macduff. It was a long time before I wanted to read or write an essay again.

But brevity is the soul of wit, and there is often truer intellect in the distillation needed in the writing of an essay than in the compilation of every known or discoverable fact about the subject of a biography. It is better that a reader should wish an essay were longer than that a biography were shorter. In good writing, what is left out is at least as important as what is included.

In recent years, there have been a more than usual number of elegant scientist- and doctor-essayists: Lewis Thomas, Oliver Sacks, Steven Jay Gould, and Richard Lewontin, for example. Gerald Weissmann, a rheumatologist at the New York University School of Medicine, is of their company. They write much better than many of their more literary confreres, perhaps because science of necessity clears the mind while literary theory—the Dutch elm disease of the humanities—of necessity addles it.

Professor Weissmann’s interests and learning are wide ranging and straddle C. P. Snow’s two cultures as if there were no gulf at all between them. He writes with equal facility of Charles Darwin and Honoré Daumier, of liposomes and literature, of immunology and impasto. He is also a humane and decent man, and his outrage at the wretched fate of incurable psychiatric patients, heartlessly discharged from institutions, is both unfeigned and justified. He is quite right to see in Michel Foucault, the intellectual inspirer of our policy of neglect in the community, a narcissist more interested in the admiration of his peers than in the practical effect of his ideas upon the lives of others.

The subtitle of the book hints that its total is greater than the sum of its parts, that there is an underlying general idea that informs and is illustrated by each of the essays. Certainly, Professor Weissmann is a man of the Enlightenment: he believes that humanity is capable of improving its lot by the exercise of its rational faculties, the finest flower of which is science. Health is better than illness, knowledge is better than ignorance, wealth is better than poverty, freedom is better than slavery: these are the author’s “liberal” beliefs. Whether it would be easy to find anyone who disagreed with them is, of course, an open question. Perhaps the nearest he comes to finding an enemy with whom to disagree and against whom to argue is in those irrationalists who claim, absurdly, that science is merely one socially constructed discourse among others, such that there is nothing to distinguish—as far as their truth claims are concerned—alchemy from chemistry and astrology from astronomy.

Weissmann’s philosophy does not get us very far, however, and he has a habit of avoiding the really difficult questions that his essays raise. The trouble begins even in the introduction where he tells us that he is an admirer and even follower of the meliorist Fabians, among them Shaw, Wells, and the Webbs. For him, these people are rational reformers who would make the world a better place. But their record was equivocal, to say the least. Shaw, for example, was not just a crank, but an evangelizing crank, who would have had us all dress in Jaeger woollens for health reasons. His criterion of the truth of a statement was whether he had made it himself; having first been an admirer of Mussolini, he came to the conclusion that there was no famine in the Soviet Union because he was personally well-fed there. Whenever I read Shaw, I cannot get out of my mind what Chekhov wrote in a letter in 1890 about Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata”:

[I]t has one [defect] for which one cannot readily forgive the author—that is, the audacity with which Tolstoy holds forth about what he doesn’t know and is too obstinate to care to understand. Thus his statements about syphilis … and so on, are not merely open to dispute, but show him up to be an ignoramus who has not, in the course of his long life, taken the trouble to read two or three books written by specialists.
Shaw was like Tolstoy in this respect—minus the genius.

The causes that Wells espoused ranged from compulsory sterilization and the complete reorganization of society to the destruction of Rome by bombing. The Webbs’s greatest achievement was undoubtedly their description of Stalin’s Russia as the most democratic country on earth: thus displaying a faith that makes pilgrims to Lourdes seem like hard-bitten materialists.

All who are rationalist, therefore, are not rational, and it is a moot point whether it would be preferable to be ruled by these Fabians than by a bizarre Latin American military dictator. Indeed, Weissmann slides away from the difficult question of why, after so much technical and material progress, mankind finds itself very little happier than before. At one point, Weissmann implies that, with further scientific research, we shall get to understand ourselves better: for, as he optimistically remarks in the hope and expectation of further progress,

there are some facts of mental science that already bid fair to become as timeless as [Boyle’s] law of perfect gases … that general paresis is due to the spirochete of syphilis, that Alzheimer’s disease is associated with neurofibrillary tangles in the brain, or that lead drove the hatter mad.
Actually, it wasn’t lead, it was mercury, but let it pass: the fact is that man’s self-understanding, except for the most obviously medical of disturbances, hasn’t advanced one jot or tittle since Shakespeare’s day. In fact, insofar as the entertainment that the groundlings consume nowadays is of incomparably lower quality, such self-understanding may be said to have retrogressed rather than advanced. And if Hume was right that reason is the slave of the passions, the place of reason in human affairs needs a much subtler analysis than Weissmann is able to provide.

The looseness of his thought, in which a general (and genuine) benevolence often stands in for precision, is evident in his treatment of equality, a value that he believes is threatened by the doctrines of sociobiology. Nowhere does he say what he means by equality, though he several times praises it: he surely cannot mean that all men are equal in their abilities. The only sense in which equality does no violence to obvious empirical fact and does not incite to mayhem and mass murder is formal equality before the law, that is to say an ethical equality that no allegedly empirical doctrine such as sociobiology could undermine.

Moreover, Weissmann sometimes appears to suggest that sociobiology is objectionable because of its ethical implications. This is perilously close to the Stalinist rejection (which the author elsewhere correctly but uncontroversially condemns) of genetic science because it was incompatible with the ideological doctrines of the day. It is wrong to reject an empirical truth because of its alleged implications. Sociobiology should be rejected not because, if true, it would have corollaries we don’t like, but because it provides a woefully, indeed laughably, inadequate account of human life, experience, and history.

Although Weissmann is in favor of equality, his tone is sometimes that of a contented mandarin. His achievements in more than one important sphere of human activity are undoubtedly great, but self-satisfaction is rarely edifying to contemplate, either in life or in print: and when he says, in an otherwise interesting article about Gertrude Stein (a minor literary figure, after all) that “she changed forever the way we read the English language,” I am inclined to wonder who this “we” actually is: le tout Georgetown, perhaps, or le tout MLA? The statement seems more to serve the function of establishing caste than enunciating truth.

If I have so far criticized Weissmann, it is because he is a man of talent and erudition, to whom the highest standards might be applied. At his best, he is very good. His essay on Oliver Wendell Holmes (the doctor father of the judge) is elegant and informative. Holmes—after whom Sherlock was named—was a pioneer of anaesthesia and also the first person to establish that the dreaded childbirth fever from which so many mothers died in Victorian hospitals was actually a contagion spread, inter alia, by doctors. He was also a noted literary man, without whose Autocrat of the Breakfast Table no second-hand bookshop in the English-speaking world can be found. Holmes’s ideas about childbirth fever were obstinately opposed by some of the greatest names in the field, and Weissmann quotes Holmes’s eloquent appeal to be heard:

I am too much in earnest for either humility or vanity, but I do entreat those who hold the keys of life and death to listen to me also for this once. I ask no personal favor; but I beg to be heard on behalf of the women whose lives are at stake, until some stronger voice shall plead for them.
These are noble words, in which the frustration of a person who rightly knows that he is right, but is thwarted by conservatism of the most mulish, intransigent, and self-interested kind, can be detected.

Weissmann is best when he is at his most straightforwardly historical. The essay on Ludwik Fleck, a Polish-Jewish immunologist who did research on typhus in the wartime camps, who was kept alive by the Germans because of his technical knowledge, and who before the war had published an interesting philosophical treatise on the nature of scientific research, is a model of its kind. It is a work of genuine piety about a man who deserves not to be forgotten, but otherwise might be.

A book is worth reading if it has qualities or parts that repay the effort of discerning them. Darwin’s Audubon is worth reading.