February 2008

Kevin Arthur

nonfiction

A Guinea Pig's History of Biology by Jim Endersby

Science histories have become more sophisticated in recent years. Historians have broadened their perspectives to tell more about the personal and social aspects of scientific activity and in so doing expose the sometimes transient nature of scientific theories. Jim Endersby's history of biology effectively describes how our understanding of heredity and genetics has passed through theory after theory to reach the truth -- or the truth for now.

Endersby employs not only these newer, sociological approaches to the history of science, but also an unconventional organizing scheme: His book is organized not by date or scientist but by the organisms that enabled scientists to make progress. The title A Guinea Pig's History of Science might suggest a rousing defense of animals as underdogs in the spirit of A People's History of the United States or A People's History of Science but this is not Endersby's aim here. The animals and plants form only the scaffolding for Endersby's stories and once introduced they quickly take second stage to the scientists, who remain the primary actors. As a result the narrative feels fragmented at times -- the same people show up in different chapters, and it's possible a more straightforward chronological history would have been more readable.

The book begins with the quagga, a now-extinct relative of horses and zebras that played an important role in the 1800s in understanding the mechanisms of inheritance. Each subsequent chapter introduces another animal or plant that has been a focus of research -- meaning breeding experiments. We learn about the findings that came from experiments with corn, mice, drosophila (fruit flies), bacteriophage, guinea pigs, the evening primrose, and humans (the last by observation and measurement -- not breeding experiments, thankfully).

Most all of the major scientific players are mentioned here -- Darwin, Mendel, J.B.S. Haldane, Watson and Crick, Barbara McClintock, and many others -- and the book is most engrossing when Endersby delves into their relationships and the scientific communities that have formed up around them. Some scientists have spent much of their careers engaged in the massive husbandry and gardening efforts required to support these communities. The energy that has gone into supporting the fruit fly science industry, for instance, is impressive and not well known.

These topics are not without controversy and Endersby deftly works in a few comments on issues like animal testing and genetically modified organisms, even tentatively offering his own personal opinions in later chapters. This is a welcome feature in a science history and makes the book even more engaging and accessible. Overall this is a highly successful and modern history of biology.

A Guinea Pig's History of Biology by Jim Endersby
Harvard University Press
ISBN: 0674027132
544 Pages