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What's in the Autoclave? A Blog about Science

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A Guinea Pig's History of Biology [Feb. 27th, 2010|04:58 pm]
What's in the Autoclave? A Blog about Science
Today I finished reading Jim Endersby's A Guinea Pig's History of Biology (2007). As the title suggests, it is a history-of-science book, focusing on biology from the 19th century to the present. The book has an interesting organizational conceit: instead of a strict chronological progression, the author organizes his chapters around several of the most important "model organisms" that have been used in biology over the past 200 years, describing how those organisms (from the evening primrose to the fruit fly) came to prominence in scientific circles and some of the important and fundamental discoveries to which they led.

The author's style of writing is very clear, and the book should be accessible to any lay reader who has had a solid high school or college introductory biology education. The book focuses more on the process of the science than the discoveries themselves, so it doesn't get bogged down in the details that might turn off a nonprofessional (although the significance of some of the discoveries is therefore sometimes understated, and I suspect that I got more out of the book for already having known a little about many of the key scientists and discoveries mentioned. For instance, in the chapters on Mendel and de Vries, it would have been helpful had the author stated more clearly which of their hypotheses were wrong, and why.)

The biggest weakness of the book, unfortunately, is that the organizing principle (each chapter on a different organism) doesn't always work very well. There is no clear argument that the author is trying to put forward, no central theme. As work on different organisms often occurred contemporaneously, the author necessarily jumps back and forth chronologically in a way that can at times become confusing, but even within each chapter the author leaps quite a bit from topic to topic such that the work often feels more like a collection of anecdotes rather than a continuous story or progression.

That said, the anecdotes are at least interesting, and I did learn a great deal about how today's community of science came about. The transition from the solitary naturalists of Darwin's day to the hierarchical structures of a modern university or industrial laboratory did not happen overnight, of course. And the author does convincingly make the case that the emergence of these particular organisms as lynchpins of modern biology was often as much by chance as by intention on the part of the researchers.

One final quibble: although the last chapter of the book is ostensibly on the laboratory mouse, research in mice is barely mentioned before the author moves on to talk about some general concluding philosophical themes. I found this odd, considering that the mouse is arguably the most important model organism in modern medical biology. The author alludes to the ethical issues of performing research on a vertebrate mammal, and then beats a hasty retreat. Of course, the history of mouse research could no doubt fill a book all on its own.

So: on the whole, it was an interesting book, which included many stories that were new to me even about some of the organisms I've studied myself. Although the way the book was organized was as often a detriment as a strength, it filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge about how we as scientists got to where we are today, and the challenges that our predecessors faced in the pre-genomic era of not-so-very-long-ago. As a survey of two centuries of science, this book just barely scratches the surface, but it did hit many of the high points.

(Also, there is a very cute guinea pig on the cover.)

I'm not sure what I'll read next. At Christmas my dad gave me a general-audience book about the disease that I study (as I am a PhD, not an MD; but still, after four years of working on this disease, I doubt that I will get much out of the book that I don't already know.) I also have The World Without Us on my shelf, untouched; it was also a gift from the previous Christmas, but I've been avoiding it because I suspect it may be very depressing.

Has anyone else read A Guinea Pig's History...? Or do you have suggestions of similar history-of-science books that might be an interesting read?