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Scientists' Nightstand: Wallace Arthur

Greg Ross

Wallace Arthur is professor of zoology and head of the zoology department at the National University of Ireland, Galway. His most recent book, Creatures of Accident: The Rise of the Animal Kingdom, was published in September (Hill & Wang/Farrar, Straus, 2006).Wallace ArthurClick to Enlarge Image

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I've always been a bit of a maverick. Rather than proceeding down the well-traveled tracks of a particular discipline, I am interested in making connections across disciplinary boundaries. I started off my academic career at the interface between evolution and ecology, and seem to be ending it up (but it's not over yet!) at the interface between evolution and development—in other words, in the new(ish) interdisciplinary field of "evo-devo." I am one of the founding editors of this field's leading journal (Evolution & Development) and have written several of its still-small complement of books. My latest—Creatures of Accident—is also the most general-audience-friendly that I have written. Its main theme is the evolution and development of complexity. It counters the "intelligent design" claim by showing that complexity can arise by entirely natural (even accidental) causes.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose  them, and what do you think of them?

I'm currently reading two books: Lynne Truss's famous Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Profile Books, 2003), which is a potential savior of our disintegrating language and funny as well, and Evo-Devo by Alessandro Minelli (Nuova Argos, Rome, 2004), because I'm trying to improve my Italian and this is so far available only in that language. (The subtitle is Sei Storie di Numeri e di Animali, or "Six Stories of Numbers and of Animals"; the main title needs no translation!) It's beautifully illustrated and written, though I need to keep my English-Italian dictionary close at hand.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

I rarely read in the afternoon—my brain just isn't in the right gear. I read academic books in the morning, novels and other "relaxation books" in the evening. As for where, the answer is anywhere quiet. I hate extraneous noise when trying to read.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

Fiction: Brian Moore, a native of Belfast like myself, though he ended up in California. His No Other Life (N. A. Talese, 1993) in particular is outstanding, but all the rest are great too. Nonfiction: I'd say that early-to-middle-stage Stephen Jay Gould books, such as Ever Since Darwin (Norton, 1977) and Wonderful Life (Norton, 1989), are great reads—before his writing got too flowery.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

The answer to this comes from the combination of my maverick tendency and my interest in evolution: Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859)—he may be orthodox now, but he wasn't then; On Growth and Form, by D'Arcy Thompson (1917), for its demonstration of how evolution often produces coordinated developmental changes in animal bodies; and Internal Factors in Evolution, by Lancelot Law Whyte (G. Braziller, 1965), which emphasizes the importance of internal coadaptation of  the different parts of a creature as opposed to the creature's external adaptation to its environment, and does so with commendable brevity.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Logically, this has to be one of my "best three," and indeed it is. Without a shadow of doubt it is Darwin's Origin. This is quite simply a superb book—a masterpiece. I have read it twice, and on both occasions ended up with a sense of awe at the change in the worldview of thinking human beings that it has produced, the wealth of diverse evidence that Darwin marshaled to make his case so persuasively, and the beauty of his writing.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

Nonscience: Asne Seierstad's The Bookseller of Kabul (Little, Brown, 2003). Popular science: Sean Carroll's The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution (W. W. Norton, 2006). Mainstream science: Developmental Plasticity and Evolution, by Mary Jane West-Eberhard (Oxford University Press, 2003). This last one I've dipped into a little but have yet to do the job properly—probably because it runs to nearly 800 pages.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Well, how young is young? For the very young, it's hard to beat the Thomas the Tank Engine series. For early teens, I'd recommend the Harry Potter series (though lots of older folk read about Harry too). For the late teens interested in science, why not try Creatures of Accident? My teenage sons read it while it was still in manuscript form, apparently without any difficulty!

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

To get a flavor of what science is about without having to digest anything too technical, I'd recommend two very different books: first, Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962), which paints the big picture, and second, The Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (edited by W. F. Bynum and Roy Porter; Oxford University Press, 2006), which gives a wide range of insights nicely and succinctly put.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

I'd recommend Rudy Raff's The Shape of Life (University of Chicago Press, 1996). Not only was it one of the formative books of the evo-devo field, but it adopts an interesting "middle way" of referring to other publications that is less intrusive than usual but without losing any information. It's also full of inspiring thoughts.

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