Andrew Solomon writes a fine essay on the recent history of medical literature. Atul Gawande, whose book Being Mortal I reviewed last year, figures prominently in Solomon’s attempt to take stock of medicine’s efforts to record our daily encounters with the fragile human body, and Gawande’s words about the inexactitude of medical practice ought to be contemplated with reference to the entire scientific endeavor:
“We look for medicine to be an orderly field of knowledge and procedure. But it is not. It is an imperfect science, an enterprise of constantly changing knowledge, uncertain information, fallible individuals and, at the same time, lives on the line. There is science in what we do, yes, but also habit, intuition and sometimes plain old guessing. The gap between what we know and what we aim for persists. And this gap complicates everything we do.” [From Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes On An Imperfect Science]
It matters not what field of science one happens to be in. Intelligence and skill alone are not enough for success. The study of biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, history, or literature requires the trait of humility, as well. To be sure, the finest doctors have this humility in varying degrees. One cannot observe the glorious chaos of our bodies or our universe without such humility being impressed upon one’s character, but there is also, I believe, an even more lasting impression the best scientists take from such studies: the understanding that everything we do in life, from working at our jobs to loving the people we love, is merely an approximation of what we truly wish to express. This understanding is at the root of humility itself. Those who come to that understanding are among the happiest, most generous people around. Those who don’t are among the most miserable people we might encounter, constantly struggling to achieve a perfection that doesn’t exist, or pursuing a kind of success that, in the end, is only an illusion.
[PS–In addition to the books Solomon mentions, I would add two more that are splendid general studies, suitable for anyone interested in medicine: The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World, by Guido Majno, M.D.; and The Greatest Benefit To Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, by Roy Porter. And if there be any among you who doubts that the study of literature can be a science, I remind you of the field of Textual Bibliography which, in its examination of ancient and modern manuscripts, can be delightfully technical.]