Nature and Design. M. W. Collins, M. A. Atherton, and J. A. Bryant, eds. WIT Press, Boston, 2005. 360 pp., illus. $213.00 (ISBN 185312852X cloth).
The first in an intended series of at least six, Nature and Design explores “the parallels between human design and nature.” That's hot stuff in an era when it seems the mere inclusion of the word “biomimetics” attracts attention and facilitates funding. Two engineers (M. W. Collins and M.A. Atherton, from London South Bank University) and a biologist (J. A. Bryant, from the University of Exeter) edit the series, a promising conjunction. And this particular book promises something at once broadly relevant and soundly grounded. According to the blurb on the back cover and on the publisher's Web site, “this volume provides a comprehensive introduction to the common scientific laws of both the natural and engineered worlds. As well as straightforward engineering design and biology, it also features mathematics, physics, chemistry, thermodynamics, biomimetics, medical engineering and history of science.”
Caveat emptor! Or perhaps I should say “cave canem.” The problems with this description go beyond commercial hype and the verbal redundancy of the second sentence—in my opinion, it's bogus. Were this book just another nonstarter, it could be left to sink without notice; but before reading Nature and Design, both this reviewer and the book review editor—and doubtless other reviewers and editors—succumbed to its promises.
Although the book's introductory chapter runs a fine flag up the pole, no contributor salutes. The remaining chapters are a scattershot lot, with no serious attempt at either thematic unification or consistency in degree of specialization. A chapter on the mathematics of nature follows one devoted to vaporous speculations on the nature of design, and another speculates in a similar manner about mechanisms that maintain complexity—neither can be considered competent reviews of literature-rich fields. One chapter on thermodynamics will be clear only to the reader sufficiently familiar with the subject to work around the chapter's deficiencies. A superficial treatment of plant structures segues into a cursory look at physical factors that might be relevant; one on trees does somewhat better. Still, what should one make of a treatment of trees as mechanical structures that doesn't mention the work of Roland Ennos, or of one on the adaptive growth of bone that fails to refer to John Currey's excellent books? Or, for that matter, one on the design of shell structures that begins with an especially vitalistic definition of homeostasis—“when any living creature is attacked by an external agent, it reacts intelligently to recover its vital functions”—and makes no further biological allusion or specific reference? A book such as this should, at the least, steer the reader to the relevant contemporary literature.
Two chapters are biographical pieces, looking at people the authors consider, one can only guess, of especial present significance. The first provides a hagiographic summary of the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci, glossing over the fact that his technical work remained unpublished and unknown for several hundred years, thus limiting his historical importance. D'Arcy Thompson, treated still less critically, is described as the first biomathematician. I'd have thought a better case could be made for, say, Samuel Haughton (1821–1897) or Francis Galton (1822–1911), each of whom tackled matters of life or death. Haughton, doing biomechanics, calculated the length of drop needed to ensure that a hanging killed immediately rather than just initiated slow strangulation. And Galton, introducing statistics, did the first quantitative study on the efficacy of prayer on longevity. But then each blotted his copybook, Haughton by rejecting evolution and Galton by starting eugenics.
The book's presentation is no better than its content. The introduction remains unpaginated; the reference style varies from chapter to chapter; typographical and simple factual errors are rife and occasionally serious; worst, it lacks an index. Its capitalization and punctuation are, to put it mildly, eclectic.
A reviewer ought to find something praiseworthy. But all that comes to mind is a tale about a boy attending his first dance. Advised always to say something nice, he racks his brain when dancing with an especially corpulent young lady. Finally, he declares with relief, “For a fat girl, you sure don't sweat much.” In fact, although I detect no connection between it and the declared mission of the book, the chapter on changing designs for land-based vehicles was a fine page-turner. And my consciousness of matters too often ignored was raised by the section on reflection and interference colors in animals—another scattershot account, but this one with a good set of references. In general, the chapters that read best are the ones with the narrowest and thus least appropriate focus, such as one that describes a particular muscle-powered ventricular assisting scheme.
In a sense, the deficiencies of Nature and Design provide object lessons that illustrate the various traps into which a book, especially an interdisciplinary one, can fall. My first rule for writing about science, once posted with some mild profanity above my desk, takes few words—“explain, don't just mention.” Consider, further, the potential readership: if a book deals with two fields, its explanations must work for readers in both fields, not in neither. Consider the role of the book as an entry point for readers in one field looking toward the other: it should provide appropriate guidance and specific references. Consider, finally, the role of the editors: besides recruiting writers and reminding laggards of deadlines, they have to ride herd on those contributors to achieve uniformity of level, organization, and degree of specialization; above all, they must ensure that contributions integrate into a clear, coherent, and useful product.
The bottom line, here quite a literal one, is the astonishing price of $213, a Brobdingnagian bill for such Lilliputian content. I worry that too many academic libraries will be drawn in, spending all-too-valuable resources on the basis of the title and cover blurb. Indeed, I find it hard to guess for whom, if anyone, the book (or any part of it) might be a must-read. And we are promised five more volumes.