Thursday, January 31, 2008

Jim Endersby's "A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology"

Jim Endersby is a lecturer in the History Department at the University of Sussex. His first book, A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology, appeared last year (from William Heinemann in the UK, and Harvard University Press in the USA).

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to the book and reported the following, beginning with most of page 99:
Lumpers and splitters

By the mid-nineteenth century, hawkweeds, brambles and dandelions were at the centre of a botanical war in which ‘lumpers’ faced off against ‘splitters’. These two factions brought two very different philosophies to bear on one of the most contentious scientific subjects of the day, the classification of life. In essence, they disagreed about how many kinds of living things there were in the world, an issue that was fundamental both to important scientific and religious questions.

Beginning with the discovery of America, European knowledge of the incredible diversity of the world’s animals and plants had been growing rapidly – and at an increasingly rapid pace. Initially, Europeans tried to fit the plants of the New World into the categories they had inherited from the ancient Greek authorities. For centuries, naturalists had been following in the tradition of authors like Pliny, compiling and writing commentary on ancient wisdom, but from the Renaissance onward Europeans were forced to recognize that there were more plants and animals in the world than even the wisest Greeks had dreamed of. These new plants and animals needed new names and new classifications. Within 100 years of Columbus’s arrival in America, the Cambridge Professor of Botany, John Ray, observed that while the ancient Greek botanist Theophrastus had recorded just 500 species of plants, his own Historia Plantarum Generalis contained 17,000 species.

It was largely because of this massive expansion of knowledge that – in the century after Ray’s book appeared – the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus carried out his massive reform of classification. Part of the trouble was that naturalists, botanists, farmers and florists all gave plants their own local names: H. auricula is not merely known as pale hawkweed, yellow hawkweed and yellow devil hawkweed, it is also known as kingdevil hawkweed and as the smooth (or in Connecticut, ‘smoothish’) hawkweed.

Is this representative of the book as a whole? Well, yes and no. It’s a bit dry compared to other pages – no jokes or anecdotes on this page, but it does give a flavour of the book. Each chapter is based around a plant or animal, starting with some kind of story about the organism itself – it might be its evolutionary history, the story of its interactions with people, its religious or cultural significance – each chapter is different. Page 99 is part of the chapter on Hieracium auricula, one of a group of flowers that look much like dandelions (and are often confused with them) and which, like dandelions, are annoying weeds that are hard to eradicate once they get into your lawn or your farmland. This page covers a topic that recurs throughout the book: how and why humans have classified the living world, how plants and animals got their names and why they got them. The chapter is subtitled, ‘what Mendel did next’, and concerns the use that was made of hawkweeds by the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel (although, as I point out in the book, he was – strictly speaking – a German-speaking Moravian friar). This chapter takes up the story of how we came to understand biological inheritance, by showing what Mendel did and – even more importantly – what he didn’t do. He did not, for example, discover the basic laws of genetics, even though he is routinely credited with having done just that.

My intention in telling the story in this rather eccentric, roundabout way, was to get away from kind of history of science that presents the past as a succession of lone geniuses whose brilliant ideas led us gradually onward and upward to the truth. By looking at the animals and plants, I hope to show that science is as much about hard work as it is about brilliant ideas. And by making the organisms the heroes of the chapters, and introducing the people as characters in the organism’s stories, I hope to show that science is always collaborative, always about cooperation (or sometimes competition) between groups of people. Lone geniuses are very rare indeed.
Read an excerpt from A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

Learn more about the author and his research and other publications at Jim Endersby's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue