The Organisms that Made It All Possible
A GUINEA PIG'S HISTORY OF BIOLOGY. Jim Endersby. xiv + 499 pp. Harvard University Press, 2007. $27.95.
Given that so much of Jim Endersby's new book focuses on guinea pig fanciers, plant breeders and fish hobbyists, it's fair to ask: What kind of hybrid is A Guinea Pig's History of Biology? Does the author's cross of popular narrative history with scholarly concepts yield hybrid vigor, or is the offspring sterile? Or, like so many experiments in the history of biology, is the point instead to demonstrate that two species thought to be widely divergent can successfully interbreed?
The attraction of A Guinea Pig's History lies in its promise to share one of the most productive recent trends in the history of science with a wider audience. For almost 20 years, professional historians have been asking what the history of biology might look like if you followed the organisms studied rather than the scientists who studied them. The most influential advocate of this approach has been Robert E. Kohler, whose remarkable 1994 book, Lords of the Fly, explores how Thomas H. Morgan's Drosophila group at Columbia University turned the common fruit fly into a standardized laboratory tool. Until now, however, these stories of fruit flies, lab rats, scallops and viruses have been largely confined to the pages of specialist journals and scholarly monographs. Endersby not only acknowledges his debt to this recent strain of historical scholarship but also offers to be its champion and translator to a broad community of readers.
Each of the book's 12 chapters therefore stars an organism that has played a central role in developing our understanding of inheritance and genetics. Notwithstanding Endersby's insistence in the preface that this is not "a story in which great scientists have great ideas," he usually pairs the organism with the scientist who made it famous. Thus we encounter Morgan's flies, Max Delbrück's bacteriophages and Barbara McClintock's corn, as well as such lesser-known but equally important biological specimens as Sewall Wright's guinea pigs and Charles Darwin's passionflowers. Endersby has done a particularly good job in selecting a group of organisms that allows him both to survey the biggest ideas in the history of biology and to explore how the practice of science has changed so dramatically over the past century. Mendel might have been able to study his peas and hawkweed in solitude, but the modern-day plant geneticists who work on Arabidopsis thaliana, or Thale cress, are part of a vast research network that thrives on conferences, patents and institutional funds.
Endersby has therefore set himself a daunting task: He proposes a synthetic, yet accessible, history of biology, based on cutting-edge historical work, that gives equal time to scientists, their objects of study and the structure of the scientific enterprise. It is doubtful that anyone could pull this off, and it is to the author's credit that he comes close to achieving it. Nevertheless, there are limitations to his approach. The first problem is inherent to the book's structure. The need to tell more than just a snippet of the story forces Endersby to switch organisms with each new chapter, but doing so forces him to abandon an organism as soon as he has given it its moment in the sun.
Consider the titular guinea pig. Its chapter begins with an overview of the guinea pig's natural history and its introduction to Europe. Next Endersby relates how the species got its common name, who bred the animals, and how they became popular as household pets in the late 19th century. Only after getting through two long biographical sections on J. B. S. Haldane and Sewall Wright does the reader learn how the two scientists used guinea pigs to develop their theories of population genetics. Having served their narrative function, the guinea pigs are then dropped in favor of the next organism, the bacteriophage. In addition to depriving the reader of the guinea pig's more recent, and controversial, role in biomedical research, this episodic quality has the unfortunate and surely unintentional effect of suggesting that the scientific community moves lockstep between organisms and problems, when of course the reality is decidedly messier and more complex.
Endersby's approach to popularization is similarly hindered by his conception of what a popular audience—that elusive prize—really wants. Unlike many science writers who use history as a painless way to introduce scientific concepts, Endersby suggests that those of us who are not scientists "have no hope of mastering the technicalities of genetics." Indeed, toward the end of the book, he tells us that over the course of writing it, he became "slightly less concerned by my inability to master the arcane details of modern genetics, since the science itself does not tell us much—if anything—about how to think about the ethical and political problems it raises." Even if we put aside the question of whether one can discuss the ethics of scientific research without at least attempting to understand the science behind it, the fact remains that Endersby has promised us a history of biology, not a guide to policy.
The last three chapters of the book, on Arabidopsis, zebra fish and OncoMouse, defend the use of genetically modified organisms and animal experimentation; these assertions feel out of place and rather too credulous, based as they are on interviews with scientists who have financial and ideological commitments at stake. One wonders whether Francis Galton, whose eugenic views are condemned in an earlier chapter on Homo sapiens, might have fared better had he been around to share his views in person, rather than having them mediated through the wisdom of hindsight.
In place of scientific explication, Endersby offers a style of cultural history made popular by such single-topic books as Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (1997). In Endersby's chapter on passionflowers, for example, before catching up with Darwin and his plants, the reader encounters Spanish monks, the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian craze for greenhouses, and the origins of British gardening magazines. Some of the vignettes are utterly charming, inviting the reader into a world of colorful personalities, odd facts and long-lost discoveries. Occasionally, however, the anecdotes are just in bad taste: Do we really need three pages on corn as an alleged sexual stimulant en route to Barbara McClintock's genetics?
Ultimately, A Guinea Pig's History of Biology seems to be a genetic outlier, or sport—unique, intriguing, with some attention-getting qualities, but unlikely to change the course of evolution in the species.
Audra J. Wolfe, Ph.D., is editor in chief of Chemical Heritage magazine and executive producer of Distillations (distillations.chemheritage.org), a weekly chemistry podcast. Her research focuses on the relationship between 20th-century biology and society.