Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Fatness, idleness and a limited book budget

At the New York Sun, Eric Ormsby has a very nice review of Jim Endersby's altogether wonderful-sounding A Guinea Pig's History of Biology (I have it from the library, but have not yet had a chance to delve into it--but I am going to buy a copy also, it is too appealing a title just to have from the library!):
Mr. Endersby has had the happy idea of tracing the successes of modern biological research through the subjects which have made it possible. Each of his chapters focuses on a particular plant or animal, from the now extinct quagga, a cantankerous relative of the zebra, to microscopic bacteriophage, or "bacteria eaters," and culminating in the genetically engineered OncoMouse®, one of the first rodents with a full-fledged patent all its own. As he points out, "the history of biology has, in part, been the story of finding the right animals or plants to aid the search."

That search was twofold. It drew on practical considerations: to improve breeding lines, beginning with racehorses but extending to livestock; to develop cash crops with higher yields, culminating in our current, and controversial, genetically modified crops (of which Mr. Endersby provides a cautious and very balanced assessment), and, most crucially, to understand and find cures for devastating diseases. But it was also a search for something fundamental and far more elusive. In Mr. Endersby's account, the history of modern biology is a story of challenged assumptions, of refusing to accept easy explanations, of a willingness to ask apparently silly questions and to pursue the answers to them with astonishing doggedness.

As Mr. Endersby rather mischievously suggests, certain questions may unwittingly reflect the preoccupations of those who posed them. Why, Darwin wondered, were two sexes needed for reproduction? Certain animals, such as barnacles — as well as most flowering plants — are hermaphroditic. Isn't self-fertilization safer, less random, and more efficient? Since flowers contain both male and female parts, why is pollination advantageous? Mr. Endersby notes that while he was pondering such tantalizing questions — which led eventually to his theory of natural selection — Darwin was also contemplating marriage. And in 1838, he drew up a list of the pros and cons. He worried about falling prey to "fatness and idleness," and fretted that matrimony would crimp his book budget. In the end, he decided in favor of marriage; having "a constant companion," he decided, was "better than a dog anyhow." One gets the distinct impression that the great man had spent far too much time in the company of barnacles.
Hmm, perhaps this is just the calming book that will be most suitable for me to read right now at this very moment...

(Somehow I do not think this one, which arrived this evening from Amazon along with an inordinate number of Clif bars and books about triathlon, will be nearly as suitable!)

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