Best Science Books of 2017: History of Science

It’s not even Darwin year anymore, but 2017 saw the publication of three great Charles Darwin books focusing on his non-natural selection interests and contributions: Darwin’s Backyard, The Origins of Darwin’s Evolution, and Darwin’s First Theory. Not to worry though, you can read about one of the longest-running evolution experiments in How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog). If more controversial biology is your thing, you’ll greatly enjoy The Life Organic. For overturning worldviews, Reading the Rocks is the book you’re looking for. Laboratory and botany historians will be interested in Engineering the Environment, while those looking for a biography of a forgotten figure will enjoy Collecting the World. Finally, those of you looking for more philosophical and artistic reading, The Form of Becoming will be of interest.

In the 1950s, Dmitri Belyaev and Lyudmila Trut from the Instute of Cytology in Novosibirk (Siberia) started an experiment that would become one of the longest-running evolution experiment: the domestication of the wild silver fox (Vulpes vulpes)In just over fifty years, they managed to tame the fox only through artificial selection centered on tameness, turning their bred foxes into affectionate pets; it only took twenty years for the domestication to begin to take hold and for anatomical and behavioural “symptoms” to appear. These experimental foxes are some of the best model organisms we have for observing and studying domestication in action and in high resolution, and in How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution, Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut take us behind the scenes of the experiment from beginning to end. It is as much a biography of Belyaev and Trut as it is a snapshot of how science had to be done in the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin and under Lysenkoism, as well as a lesson in how to maintain an experiment going on for more than half a century. The science is not too explored too deeply, and that is fine: this book is excellent for a lay reader, and if you’re not expecting multivariate genomic analyses, the academic reader will be satisfied too.

Another great experimenter was good old Charles Darwin – not that you would know it if you read most stories about his life, which tend to focus on the Beagle voyage and the publication of the Origin. Chucky amassed over forty years of experimental biology and ecology experience, focusing on a truly wide breadth of subjects: orchid pollination; earthworms in soil; dispersal of seeds in pigeons; a whole lot of very thorough pigeon breeding; plant movement; honeybee comb building; among others. Some fed into his theory of natural selection, most were curiosity-driven. This side of Darwin is arguably more fascinating than the “Darwin the Explorer” and “Darwin the Letter-Writing Genius” sides that have been publicised for over a century now, and James T. Costa provides a great exploration of it in Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory. Avoiding the hagiographical pitfalls that tend to plague Darwin publications, Costa nevertheless manages to paint a picture of Darwin as an excited, impeccably-detailed scientist, driven by a playful curiosity, a mind well-suited for experimental design, and the good sense to ask for help (from either his kids or other naturalists). A great read for any Darwin and history of evolution buff; and also for anybody looking to see how simple it is to do good, effective science. (Granted, Darwin had a lot of money and even more free time, so not many people can replicate his body of work; but we sure can replicate his thinking!)

Of course, it is disingenuous to claim that any one aspect of Darwin contributed more to his body of work, and especially to the development of the theory of natural selection. The reason why he can rightly claim the largest credit for natural selection is precisely because he brought so much varied evidence to the foreground. In Origins of Darwin’s Evolution: Solving the Species Puzzle Through Time and Place, J. David Archibald argues for the prime importance of biogeography in Darwin’s thinking, and even goes further to name Darwin as one of the main developers of historical biogeography. It’s a great book, and really emphasises this also often glossed-over aspect of Darwin’s development of natural selection, such as the unique oceanic island faunas and floras he encountered on the Beagle voyage, or the successions in South America from the fossil mega-mammals to the modern mammal fauna. Of interest to anyone wanting an in-depth look at Darwin’s biogeographical work.

The last Darwin book in this list also deals with the generally least discussed facet of Darwin: Darwin the Geologist. While natural selection is his most lasting and important contribution to science, Darwin wrote three times more pages of geological notes than biological ones. Rob Wesson delves into this oft-ignored side of Darwin in Darwin’s First Theory. His most famous and lasting addition to geology was his theory on the formation of coral atolls, but his work also lent weight to the slowly-more-accepted theory of uplift pioneered by his mentor, Charles Lyell. The book is very engagingly written, mixing Darwin’s adventures with Wesson’s own visits to the same places, with just the right amount of travelogue-style passages and comedy peppered throughout; the scientific side is deftly handled by including both the historical theories Darwin was grappling with to explain his observations, and the modern explanations provided by Wesson’s expert eyes and knowledge. Must-read if you’re into geology, exotic travel, or want to explore this other side of Darwin.

If you’re interested in slightly earlier history of geology, Brenda Maddox’s Reading the Rocks: How Victorian Geologists Discovered the Secret of Life is a nice introduction to Charles Lyell and his contemporaries in the early modern era of natural history. a time when the old, church-driven view of the Earth’s history was being replaced by a scientific one pioneered by gentlemen and women. The book can be read from many angles – biographical, historical, narrative – and so will appeal to all readers interested in this exciting time in the history of science.

Moving forward to the 20th century, David P. D. Munns’s Engineering the Environment: Phytotrons and the Quest for Climate Control in the Cold War offers the first detailed historical review of phytotrons. These were the cutting edge of Big Science in plant physiology: massive, fully-controllable greenhouses, which allowed very detailed, systematic studies on the interplay between environment and plant physiology and morphology. Just about every important factor was thought of, from temperature and humidity to light spectra. Starting in Cold War USA (where there are twelve), and eventually picked up by several countries around the world (Germany, Netherlands, Japan…), they were all the rage during the Cold War but fizzled out of popularity by the 1980s. I never knew about these places, and this book is important for shedding a light on their history. Giant, building-sized laboratories are usually the domain of physics and astronomy, so if you’re interested in the one time biologists were given so much space and tech, and all the interdisciplinary research they managed to get out of it, read this book.

Just as phytotronists harnessed the latest technology to further their field, so too did the earliest embryologists in the 18th century. However, their technologies were borrowed from artists, as were their general philosophies about what they were observing and documenting. Janina Wellmann’s The Form of Becoming: Embryology and the Epistemology of Rhythm, 1760-1830 explores how the artistic and aesthetic values of the times informed and even guided the works of these early Romantic and pre-Romantic scientists – think Goethe or von Baer. It’s a very intriguing thesis, and is bound to be of interest to anyone looking at the intersections of art and science, since this looks at a time in scientific history when there was no real need to make a distinction between them.

Few topics in the history of biology are more difficult to pick apart than the origin and fate of organicism. A philosophy dogged by unfair misjudgements right from the beginning, organicism was once supposed to be a “third way” for biology – neither mechanistic nor vitalistic. Unfortunately, it was deemed too similar to vitalism, and the eventual triumph of mechanism through the rise of molecular biology has caused organicism to be relegated to a footnote in the histories of biology, usually as a synonym of vitalism. Erik L. Peterson masterfully sets the record straight in The Life Organic: The Theoretical Biology Club and the Roots of Epigenetics. A colleague of mine called the book a bit biased, but I don’t see it: it’s a recounting of the founding and activities of the Theoretical Biology Club in the 1930s. Founded by Joseph Needham and Joseph Woodger, and later joined by C. H. Waddington, J. D. Bernal, and Dorothy Wrinch, they were a close-knit group that sought to apply A. N. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, to show that organisms were more than the sum of their parts, to expand on the simplistic reductionist ideas of the molecular embryology of the time. This is the first book that really goes into great detail in the history of these ideas, from their precursors, to the founding of the Club, its failure to gain funding, and its eventual demise in the 1970s – not through scientific reasons, mind you, but through social ones (the stink of Lysenkoism, accusations of Marxism and religious influence, the discovery of DNA which obliterated any hope of getting any money to investigate something not involving DNA…). If I had to nitpick, I would say that it’s too US- and UK-centric (German science had its own interesting history with organicism), but considering the depth to which Peterson goes, this is easily forgiven. A must-read for anyone interested in the history of 20th century biology, philosophy of biology, history of developmental biology, and even in the sociology of science.

James Delbourgo’s Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum is a thorough biography of legendary but somewhat forgotten 17th century collector Hans Sloane – his rags to riches story and his trips through Europe and to Jamaica, but the the most welcome insights are into just how he amassed and catalogued his enormous collections that spanned all fields (natural history, archaeology, coins, ethnographical items…): he had a global network of colleagues who sent him specimens, and he also bought collections of his deceased colleagues. Cataloguing was done with a complex but somehow logical system of classification, all items linked by catalogs and scraps of papers. Delbourgo shows us a picture of Sloane as a superb networker with a knack for organising. It’s about time some light is shed on him, as his collections were then bought by the British Parliament and formed the foundational collection of the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the British Library.

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