The Curse of the Leopard-faced Vulture

A guest blog from Joe Eaton, in the service of a shared concern:

Ron has kindly offered me blog space for the occasional rant. This one was triggered by a book called The Price of Altruism, by Oren Harman, that has reinforced my conviction that nobody copyedits or proofreads anything anymore.

It was published two years ago by Norton, a reputable house (Steve Gould's publisher for years), to favorable reviews, and was on the New York Times' list of the hundred best books of 2010. I recently picked it up out of curiosity. Harman tells the tragic story of George Price, a brilliant and probably schizophrenic scientist. Trained as a chemist, he turned to evolutionary biology and developed an equation to explain the origins of altruism. Price also had a history of computational religious mania and fixations on unattainable women. Having decided to emulate Jesus, he quit his job at a British research institute, gave all his possessions to homeless winos, and committed suicide in a London squat in 1975. Harman interweaves Price's life with the history of attempts to explain altruism as a biological phenomenon, from Darwin and Huxley to E. O. Wilson and Bill Hamilton. The Price Equation may have played a role in Wilson's recent conversion from kin selection to group selection.

This is not a bad book. On the whole, it's reasonably well written, and the narrative structure is effective. But it's riddled with egregious mistakes, bizarrely turned phrases, and passages that approach incoherence. In his acknowledgements, Harman thanks a copyeditor named Sue Llewellyn and an editor named Kay Peddle. It's apparent that neither was doing her job.

At one point, Harman credits, if that's the word, Robert Ardrey with authorship of The Genesis Flood. That creationist tract was in fact the work of Henry Morris, who is correctly identified as author a few pages later. Ardrey wrote African Genesis, admittedly a lurid potboiler but at least not a product of the Young Earth school.

Then there's this: “George had to run to make his vacation flight to Puerto Rico—his first trip ever outside America.” However you parse it, this statement would be a real surprise to the average Puerto Rican. And this description of a Bell Telephone ad in Life:
“And what about ‘Just Married,' with a brunette in an office chair with phone and adoring hubby reclining above her?” Well, what about it? Try to visualize this scene. Is he in a bunk bed? And they're supposed to be newlyweds? Why is the office chair in the bedroom? Can this marriage be saved?

But the book's crowning glory is the following (brace yourself): “Whether animals aid their kin (ants and wolves who help their sisters breed) or nonrelatives (vampire bats who share blood, mouth to mouth, at the end of a night of prey with members of the colony who were less successful in the hunt); whether they abandon their eggs (sharks and skates and stingrays) or goslings (eagle owls and leopard-faced vultures) or sacrifice themselves for the next generation (male praying mantises serve their heads during coitus to their avaricious ladies): whether they come together as a group (Siberian steeds forming rings against predators) or aid themselves at the expense of their hosts (from the common cold bug to proliferating cancers)—all living things are acting in the interest of their true masters: a cabal of genes whose sole imperative is replication.”

Where to start with this train wreck of a sentence? Most sharks don't lay eggs; they give birth to live young. There is no such beast as a leopard-faced vulture, even in the ruins of Catal Huyuk. Harman is probably thinking of the lappet-faced vulture, the lappets being skin flaps on the scavenger's bare head. Neither vultures nor owls beget goslings. Geese have goslings. Owls have owlets. Vultures have—vulturelets? In any case, not goslings. Female mantids might be better described as voracious than avaricious. They don't want the male's portfolio; they want a snack. “Steed” implies a domestic horse, and the Siberian horses in question, observed by Kropotkin, were wild, or at least feral. Cold viruses are not animals, and questionably living things. Cancers? This passage is almost sublime in its multifaceted wrongness.

You might suspect a language problem here. Harman was born in Jerusalem lives and teaches in Tel Aviv, but attended an American secondary school and Oxford and has written for English-language publications. No translator is identified. Harman's background might explain the occasional off-key idiom. It can't account for the leopard-faced vulture. Nor can I, unless that bit was dictated over a bad phone connection.

In the end, I tend to blame Ms. Llewellyn and Ms. Peddle. You two were supposed to be the gatekeepers, the guardians of consistency and common sense. You have let the side down. For shame!

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