how to popularize complex systems, and book recommendations for nerds this holiday season

If you’re interested in the supernerd part of what I do, go and read David Dobbs’s Die, selfish gene, die.

It’s about the science of gene expression, as an advancement from “selfish gene” theory. And it’s about how that science can sort of explain why selfish gene theory has so much traction even though it really is (past) time for gene expression to take its place.

In this second task, Dobbs lucidly explains to me my own experience ten years ago. Back in grad school I found myself standing the middle of the self-gene-or-group-selection war that’s been going on in evolution for several decades now. There were compelling and complex arguments – not to mention brilliant people – on both sides, and I was reluctant to trust my intellect to choose one. My best friend, who happened to be a philosopher of science, said, “You’re going to have to have an opinion about this, Em.”

It was the writing of two women who set me on the side of group selection: Mary Jane West Eberhard, whom Dobbs interviews in his piece, and Susan Oyama. They write from a systems perspective. It’s complex and rich and subtle and when you bother to slow down and think carefully about the evidence they discuss, the ENTIRE WORLD EXPLODES IN YOUR HEAD.

But it’s a less linear, more dynamic model that does not come intuitively to a mind that has been trained by an industrial-revolution era education system like the U.S. public schools.

Simple ideas win. Of all the many things I’ve learned this year, in the process of writing my book, it’s that there’s no relationship between a true idea and an idea that people remember, understand, believe, or use. The ideas that take over are the ideas that fit intuitively with what we already believe, that are pithy, that can be expressed as a metaphor, a rhyme, or a story – and “story” means “relatable individual relatably struggling to achieve a relatable goal.”

So I loved this article because it showed me how a complex idea can be expressed as a metaphor, a story, and become an idea people remember, understand, believe, and use. Without skipping the hard parts.

In short, if there’s a biology nerd in your life, you could do worse – and I think you could hardly do better – than to buy them a book by one of these authors for Christmas.