I’ve often carped about the New Yorker‘s science writing (see here and here, for instance), something that became a pet peeve when it published Siddhartha Mukherjee’s wonky ideas about epigenetics and then refused to correct them after many famous geneticists called it to their attention. After I was getting tired of its attempt to wrap every subject in baroque and orotund prose, including science, I finally gave up my subscription when its self-important editor, David Remnick, caved in to public pressure and disinvited Steve Bannon from the New Yorker Festival (writer Malcolm Gladwell dissented). The magazine was also becoming increasingly Woke, as its target audience, rich Leftists, wanted the rag to flaunt more virtue.
But I still have a stack of back issues, and have been working my way through them, feeling most of the time that canceling my subscription was the right thing to do. For one thing, I can read a lot more books. On the plane to Amsterdam, I read the January 14 issue, which included this article by Jerome Groopman, a staff writer and physician. It’s a review of a new book, Nine Pints: A Journey Through the Money, Medicine, and Mysteries of Blood, by Rose George, which describes the history of research on blood, starting with ancient mythology through the first transfusions and on to modern knowledge. The book sounds good, but Groopman has to trick out his review, à la New Yorker style, with irrelevant flourishes. You can read the article, which does contain some fascinating facts, by clicking on the link below.
Perhaps I’m being captious here, but after reading the article, a piece that recounts some good history of science and interesting medical facts (the account of Harvey’s discovery of blood circulation is fascinating), it winds up saying that the Big Mystery of Blood remains. Yet what that “profound mystery” actually is is never elucidated.
Groopman begins with a literary flourish, referring to Leviticus:
During my training as a hematologist at U.C.L.A., forty years ago, a senior faculty member introduced the program of study by citing a verse from Leviticus: “The life of the flesh is in the blood.” For the assembled young physicians, this was a biological truth. Red cells carry oxygen, required for our heart to beat and our brain to function. White cells defend us against invasion by lethal pathogens. Platelets and proteins in plasma form clots that can prevent fatal hemorrhages. Blood is constantly being renewed by stem cells in our bone marrow: red cells turn over every few months, platelets and most white cells every few days. Since marrow stem cells spawn every kind of blood cell, they can, when transplanted, restore life to a dying host.
. . . and, in a literary trope of circularity, Groopman also ends his piece with Leviticus. But what on earth is the “oldest, most profound mystery of blood.” Groopman’s last sentence, which says that “the life of the flesh” could also mean “the soul of the flesh” in Hebrew, doesn’t clarify things a bit.
Last month, in San Diego, the American Society of Hematology had its annual meeting. The program featured new discoveries about blood’s biology and accounts of recent advances in patient treatments—including an alternative to chemotherapy for one of the most common and incurable forms of leukemia. But, even as the field probes ever more deeply into the ways that blood serves living tissues, my colleagues and I are no closer to unravelling the oldest, most profound mystery of blood. In the verse from Leviticus, the word nefesh, translated as “life,” also means soul.
This is an example of how not to write popular science: ending with a claim that The Big Mystery Still Remains. This is how the magazine’s penchant for the humanities at the expense for science actually corrupts the science in an almost metaphysical direction. For how else can you interpret “the oldest, most profound mystery of blood”? Clearly, science will not suffice.
As an addendum, here’s how Groopman (and the New Yorker itself) often present the Jesus myth as if it were literally true, with no doubt cast upon it:
Yet, despite the firm proscription against ingesting blood, one breakaway Jewish sect of the first century A.D. made the idea of doing so central to its rituals. Its leader, Jesus of Nazareth, told his disciples that the bread and the wine at the Last Supper were his body and blood, and should be consumed thereafter in memory of him. The ritual of the Eucharist became a cornerstone of early Christianity, and with it the doctrine of transubstantiation—that a literal, not just figurative, transformation occurred during the sacrament.
Here we see the credulous acceptance that Jesus of Nazareth not only existed, but was leader of a Jewish sect, as well as the implication that the Last Supper really did happen. Where is the “reportedly” that should occur at least twice in this paragraph?