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1 January 2011 Remarkable Biologists: From Ray to Hamilton
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Ioan James is emeritus professor of mathematics at Oxford University, and in recent years he has become interested in scientific lives. As with his earlier Remarkable Mathematicians and Remarkable Physicists, here too, in Remarkable Biologists, he fancies himself neither a professional historian nor philosopher of science but rather more like an ice-cream vendor, providing stylized tastes on small spoons to interested passersby, inviting curiosity, perhaps hoping to fall upon a veritable sweet tooth. “This book is intended for those who would like to read something, but not too much,” he writes in the preface, “about the life stories of some of the most remarkable biologists born in the last four hundred years.” James has handpicked 38 of them, not necessarily on the basis of their eminence or scientific legacies, but rather in the interest of providing variety. Candidly, James admits that a main criterion for inclusion was that a full-scale biography of the figure already exists. So, what kind of glimpses does he provide?

There are both men and women in this collection (33 versus 5), from 10 different countries: naturalists and theoreticians, botanists and geneticists, animal behaviorists, ecologists, evolutionists, and a sexologist (Kinsey). Most have become immortalized—in sculpture, in named chairs and institutions, in literature (Beatrix Potter, author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, is one of the biologists seemingly randomly featured), or in national lore (from Darwin to Rachel Carson to Emperor Hirohito of Japan). In all cases, the emphasis is placed not on the actual science but on biographical sketches, the likes of which begin, “his parents were amongst the semi-impoverished lesser nobility of northern France” (Lamarck), and offer such esoteric descriptions as “his favourite Montbéliard chitterling sausages were never missing from his table,” alongside more suggestive illuminations such as “he was a very secretive man and it is not certain that his writings reflected his real opinions” (both of the latter statements referring to George Cuvier). James can be rather opinionated. Here he is on John James Audubon: “His monumental work Birds of America is one thing, the slaughter of wildlife, often hundreds of specimens to make one drawing is another…neither honest nor fair…he was only marginally literate and was indifferent to the truth.” So too at times can he wax rather embarrassingly hagiographic: “His head was simply magnificent, his forehead large and well developed, and his brilliant, intelligent and searching eyes could best be described by the word fascinating, while his mouth and somewhat voluptuous lips were expressive, and in perfect harmony with an aquiline nose and well-shaped chin.” I wonder what Louis Agassiz would have made of such descriptions of his visage.

Some of the nuggets are delightful, such as the fact that Sir Hans Sloane, father of the British Museum, who played a leading role in establishing the practice of inoculation against smallpox, also, having become familiar with chocolate in Jamaica, “found it more digestible when mixed with milk,” thereby inventing milk chocolate for posterity (much to the delight and profit of Messrs. Cadbury). Or the rebuff of Carl Linneaus's joyous botanical field trips with his students at the University of Uppsala by a rector who thought that “we Swedes are a serious and slow-witted people; we cannot, like others, unite the pleasurable and fun with the serious and useful.” In an essay in which she insisted that biography should be considered a craft as opposed to the art of fiction, Virginia Woolf (1974) wrote: “Biography will enlarge its scope by hanging up looking glasses at odd corners.” I am less sure of the hard and fast craftart divide, but “looking glasses at odd corners”—yes, by all delicious means.

Still, as one advances from sketch to sketch, a nagging contemplation slowly seeps into the neuronal gaps in the mind. Why, after all, scientific lives? What is to be gained from considering childhood mentors; doting or otherwise deranged mothers; motivations; idiosyncratic quirks; or even the larger political, cultural, material, and institutional setting in which science operates? Isn't science ultimately about enduring laws and the uncovering of objective, universal truths? “It is a fine part of history to reconstruct researchers' personal dreams of glory or god,” a recent review in Science offers. “Scientists may need such dreams to keep them going through the long, hard hours. But after the discovery it is only the outed secret of nature that matters” (Frank 2010). Newton, as John Maynard Keynes noted, regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty, but this has little bearing over “the truth of force equals mass times acceleration.”

In the history of science, debates have raged for years between “internalists” and “externalists.” Despite valiant and meaningful attempts to dishonor the fatuous distinction, it seems as though there will always be minds that lean one way or the other, somewhat similar to the nature versus nurture divide. But whether one professes the social construction of knowledge, or otherwise doubts and discounts the penetration of culture and psychology of the sanctum sanctorum of pure rational scientific inquiry, it seems to me that the beauty and profundity of the history of science ultimately stem from bringing both sides to the table. In particular, it is the juxtaposition of the transcendence of nature's laws with the frailty and peculiarity of the human condition—in all its splendor and messiness and unavoidable transience—that truly provides a justification for the study of the history of science, as opposed to the study of science itself.

So despite the fact that this collection suffers in places from hagiography or just plain laziness (the explanation of Fisher's fundamental theorem just falls short and is really under par); despite the fact that the bibliographies provided for each chapter are often out of date and not very helpful; and despite unexplained biases (is the author trying to make a historical redress by oddly providing Alfred Wallace 14 pages of text when all the rest receive a maximum of 5?), there is still something to be gained from this collection of biographical sketches. The visage of John Hunter, the father of the scientific principle of surgery, driving into London in a carriage drawn by buffaloes; the picture of the childless and reclusive Barbara McClintock waiting at the local Cold Spring Harbor bus stop to walk young children home, “describing to them the wonders of nature as they went along”; the anguish Geoffrey Saint Hillaire must have felt being outdone in public debate by a slicker, sharper Cuvier (a man he himself had pulled out of poverty and into scientific fame, who then turned on him, ridiculing his championing of evolution)—these are integral, priceless slices of the scientific enterprise and its vicissitudes. They inspire, no less than the beautiful truth that force equals mass times acceleration. Science is done and made by people, and this is what provides its majesty, alongside its wonder and intellectual flair. Perhaps then a reader will be found in possession of a veritable sweet tooth and be rewarded by these tiny spoonfuls of history. If so, he should thank the author before diving into deeper, more glorious waters still.

References cited

  1. SA Frank . 2010. Belief, reason, and insight. Science 329: 279–280. Google Scholar

  2. V Woolf . 1974. The Art of Biography in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Google Scholar

Oren Harman "Remarkable Biologists: From Ray to Hamilton," BioScience 61(1), (1 January 2011). https://doi.org/10.1525/bio.2011.61.1.16
Published: 1 January 2011
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