09 September 2016

Breck Bartholomew Natural History Books

Rare Natural History is part of a group of websites high-lighting Natural History books and their illustrations. The menu bar above contains links to:

"Bookstore" — links to Breck Bartholomew Natural History Books: A bookstore specializing in rare and illustrated natural history books, generally published prior to 1900. I would be happy to discuss selling your books on consignment or purchasing for resale. I have special consignment rates for books being sold on behalf of non-profit organizations.

"Natural History Decor" — Links to a collection of natural history illustrations, primarily from old books. These illustrations can be printed for wall decor, as well as on a number of other items, such as pillows, bags, phone cases, and more. The Fine Art America widget on this page scrolls through some of the many illustrations available on the Natural History Decor website. More will be added on a regular basis.

"FaceBook" — Links to a Facebook page that will allow to you keep informed whenever a new book, blog entry, or illustration is added to this website or the other two websites—Follow us on FaceBook.

Tractatio de theoria descensus et ascensus gravium obliqui ejusque multiplici applicationes

Hoffstetten, Benno Ignatius von, Joseph Zweissig and Nicolaus Tolent Feichtmayr. 1765. Tractatio de theoria descensus et ascensus gravium obliqui ejusque multiplici applicationes. Franz Joseph Thuille, Munich, Engraved foldout frontis, x, 74 p. 3 plates, xxii.

Folio, marbled paper cover hinge cracked at lower portion of book, about 2 inches. Overall very good condition.

First edition of a thesis on the motion of falling bodies and pendula. This Thesis by Benno Ignatius von Heffstetten. It appears Joseph Zweissig and Nicolaus Tolent Fiechtmayr were professors overseeing the Thesis, but I am not certain.

Joseph Anton Zimmermann (1715-1797) was a Bavarian Engraver. The frontis for this work is by Zimmerman. It is unclear if Zimmerman also engraved the three plates. The Frontis is an allegorical portrait of Maximilian III Joseph, Duke of Bavaria.

This book is available for sale - click on the bookstore link above or here. If the book does not appear on those links it may have been sold. You can still see images of the fronts and plates from the book on the Natural History Decor website (link above) or by clicking here.

08 July 2015

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life

I finished On the Origin of Species a couple of months ago and have been thinking about what I can say about it ever since. It would be useless to try to review the book — after all it is one of the most influential books ever published. Although it is more than 150 years old, the vast majority of the book remains quite accurate. Yes ideas on evolution have grown since 1859, and we now know about genetics, which Darwin could only postulate, but the ideas put forth in On the Origin of Species have changed surprisingly little. On one hand the book has been a springboard for biology as well as many other disciplines, but at the same time that springboard remains virtually unchanged. Given the state of biological knowledge in the 1850s, On the Origin of Species represents a truly remarkable accomplishment.

Back when I took evolution in college I remember thinking that Alfred Russel Wallace got the short end of the stick and should be equally recognized for figuring out natural selection. In college the whole story was presented basically as follows: Darwin figured out natural selection as the principle mode of evolution in 1839, but because of various reasons, including his religious background he didn't tell many people about it and refused to publish or publicize the idea. That was until Wallace sent him a letter in 1858 describing the same mode of evolution and Darwin was forced to publish or risk loosing credit as the first person to figure natural selection out.

After reading Darwin's Ghosts, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, and On the Origin of Species I have to say that the impression given in college is so oversimplified as to be entirely inaccurate. I now firmly believe Darwin deserves full credit for coming up with natural selection. We do owe Wallace a debit of thanks for helping things turn out they way they did. His role was vitally important. However, if Darwin remained silent after receiving Wallace's letter in 1858, or if Wallace would have published without contacting Darwin, the history of biology would be quite different, as would our current knowledge of biology.

Darwin was one of those unique people in scientific history who had the ability to come up with a novel idea and then continue to examine the idea throughly — while trying to find any faults that might prove the idea wrong or imperfect. After first noting natural selection in his notebook in 1839, Darwin began a twenty year research project to examine every possible aspect of the idea to see if it was correct or not. In 1844 he wrote a short essay presenting his research findings on evolution and spelling out the mode of natural selection. It seems his intention in doing this was to insure the idea would be published if he were to die before he completed his research. In his will he instructed his wife to publish it if he died. He also showed it to Lyell and Hooker, but asked them to keep it confidential.

Over the next 15 years, Darwin proceeded to gather data examining natural selection. He published some of this data prior to 1859, but the bulk of it was published after On the Origin of Species. The reason for this is that Darwin had planned on publishing a large monograph on natural selection, including all of the data he had collected in support of the idea. I am sure he would have also objectively presented the arguments against natural selection at the same time. In fact he did this in On the Origin of Species as a way to discuss each argument.

This is where we have Wallace to thank. If Darwin proceeded as he had planned, his monograph on natural selection would have been published in several volumes and appealed only to other scientists. Even those other scientists would have had a difficult time gleaning the importance of natural selection from the massive text. After receiving a copy of On the Origin of Species, Hooker wrote to Darwin, "I am all the more glad that you have published in this form, for the three volumes, unprefaced by this, would have choked any naturalist of the nineteenth century" (Freeman, 1977). Once Wallace had arrived at natural selection as the primary mode of evolution, Darwin felt he needed to publish something on his life's work. Imagine working on something for twenty years, then being faced with the possibility of having your life's work overshadowed by someone who just came up with the same answer, but had none of the supporting information to refute all of the arguments against it. That is what Darwin faced.

Darwin began writing On the Origin of Species in July 1858. By October 1859 it was at the printers and typeset. Darwin meant the book to be an abstract of his yet to be published monograph on evolution. Judging from the length of this abstract, 424 pages (not including the index), you can see how long the actual monograph may have been. In fact, most of the books Darwin published after 1859 would have been parts of this monograph and they do include several multi-volume books. Since this was an abstract, Darwin did not include citations or acknowledgements — although acknowledgements were added in a later edition and inspired Darwin's Ghosts.

Because On the Origin of Species was a summary of the data Darwin had collected and considered, it was a much more readable book than he had intended. We have Wallace to thank for that. Because of it's readability, On the Origin of Species was widely read and talked about by a wide range of people from all sorts of backgrounds. It made an instant impact which catapulted it to its well deserved spot as one of the most important and influential books ever published.

Now if we reconsider Wallace and if he should share credit for figuring out the process of evolution by natural selection, we find that his contribution is mostly limited to ensuring Darwin published On the Origin of Species in it's current form. In August 1858, more than a year before On the Origin of Species was published, Wallace's paper on natural selection was published, along side parts of Darwin's 1844 manuscript (see: http://wallaceletters.info/sites/wallaceletters.info/files/1858_PAPER.pdf). It's impact — virtually nothing from anyone at the meeting, or anyone who received the journal, nor in the media, nothing at all from anyone. Much like Mendel's paper on genetics, the Wallace-Darwin paper lay dormant waiting for someone to realize its importance.

Then more than a year later, On the Origin of Species was published and the world stood up to pay attention. It was published as a book for the general public, accessible to anyone. It was reprinted almost immediately, widely discussed and debated. Revisions started almost immediately as well - and this is where the real credit gets solidified for Darwin. Since he had contemplated natural selection for twenty years, testing all aspects and arguments against it, Darwin was prepared for the critics. Wallace, on the other hand, had come up with the mechanism of natural selection, but had not considered every aspect of the idea. In fact, on his personal copy of the Wallace-Darwin paper (pdf link above), Wallace wrote: 

" 1860. Feb."
"After reading Mr. Darwin's admirable work "On the Origin of Species," I find that there is absolutely nothing here that is not in almost perfect agreement with that gentleman's facts & opinions."
"His work however touches upon & explains in detail many points which I had scarcely thought upon, - as the laws of variation, correlation of growth, sexual selection, the origin of instincts &  of neuter insects, & the true explanation of embryological affinities. Many of his facts & explanations in geographical distribution are also quite new to me & of the highest interest. A. R. Wallace, Amboina."

In summary, I would highly recommend reading On the Origin of Species to anyone with an interest or background in biology. However, times have changed since 1859 and I would also recommend reading Darwin's Ghosts and The Reluctant Mr. Darwin first. These books offer a nice context for reading On the Origin of Species with greater understanding and appreciation then could be expected by just reading Darwin's masterpiece alone.

A few notes about the impact of reading On the origin of Species to me personally: Since reading On the origin of Species I have watched two movies and read a book that have helped me better understand Darwin as a person and scientist. The book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, and the two movies, The Theory of Everything about Stephen Hawking and The Imitation Game about Alan Turing helped me understand Darwin and the way he worked. He was undoubtedly an introvert - a characteristic shared by a surprising number of scientists (including Hawking and Turing), particularly those who have made significant contributions. I would recommend all three of these. The book, Quiet also helped me understand aspects of my own personality that I have struggled with all of my life - living in a world that expects everyone to be an extrovert and feeling guilty that my behavior doesn't quite fit.

On a more recent note, I have been reading about Dyslexia. It is quite different then what people thought it was when I was in school & college. Far from being a sign of inferior intelligence, Dyslexia is a different way in which a person's brain can work. I hope to write more about dyslexia later. For now I will just mention one aspect of Dyslexia that reminds me of Darwin - and I have no idea if Darwin was dyslexic or not. Anyone can have the characteristics typical of dyslexic styles of brain function, they are just more common and pronounced in dyslexics. Anyway, as presented in the book, The Dyslexic Advantage, Darwin demonstrated a keen ability for dynamic reasoning - these are the reasoning skills required to think well about complex, variable, and dynamic systems. His ability to take ideas and information presented in different contexts and apply them to a new system is exactly what Darwin did to arrive at natural selection as the primary mode of evolution.

Initially I began reading a copy of the first American edition of On the Origin of Species which is a copy of the first edition, but published a few months later in the USA. I became worried and an accident could happen around the house and damage the book, so I put it away and started reading David Quammen's (editor) illustrated edition of the first edition. Although the illustrations add a lot to this edition - if you are not reading the book - I found them very distracting while reading the book. The illustrations add to the history of Darwin, but do not relate directly, if at all to the text. By chapter four, I settled on the audiobook version of the first edition read by Bill DeWees. I found his American accent less distracting and easier to follow than the audiobooks read by British narrators. The audiobook also made it easier for me to get through some of the lengthy, comma-riddled, sentences. At times On the Origin of Species is quite elegant, but at other times it can be a bit tedious. Nonetheless, it is well worth reading, even if you choose to listen to an audiobook.

Finally, I have avoided the term "theory of evolution." This is an antiquated term whose use has long since deserved to be abandon. Evolution is no longer a theory, it is a fact, plain and simple. To say "theory" suggests it is still unproven or in question. It is not. Anyone who uses the term "theory of evolution" or "theory of natural selection" should be immediately corrected and discouraged from its continued use. These terms only support faith based groups who deny science (facts) in favor of beliefs than can never be proven.

Eide, B.L. & F.F. Eide (2011) The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain. Plume, New York, 283 p.

Freeman, R.B. (1977) The Works of Charles Darwin: An Annotated Bibliographical Handlist, Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged. Wm. Dawson & Sons Ltd., Kent, 235 p.

Quammen, D. (2007) The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charkles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution. W.W. Norton, New York, 304 p.

Stott, R. (2012) Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. Spiegel & Grau, New York, 396 p.

24 April 2015

Joan François Obbes (1869-1963)

Joan François Obbes (1869-1963) a well-known artist from the Netherlands, worked for a time at the Amsterdam Zoological Museum. While at the museum Obbes drew illustrations for two important books, The Reptiles of the Indo-Australian Archipelago and the first ten volumes of The Fishes of the Indo-Australian Archipelago. The reptile volumes contain 132 illustrations in volume 1, and 117 illustrations in volume 2. During this same time Obbes drew illustrations for the Fish volume.

I am fortunate to have two watercolors, representing drawings of snakes in volume two of the Reptiles. These both hold some interest and offer some clues to perhaps how Obbes worked. The first watercolor is of a Boiga dendrophila (Mangrove Snake). This painting was used as the cover of Herpetological Review in 2006, volume 37(1). Most of the information I have about the artist comes from the write up about the cover in this issue by Kraig Adler.

Below are pictures of the original watercolor, the cover of Herpetological Review 37(1), and the drawing on page 198, of Nelly de Rooij's 1917, Reptiles of the Indo-Australian Archipelago volume 2.

In this case the original watercolor and the drawing differ little. Details that are lacking in the watercolor have been added to the drawing, but this is not unusual. Adler (in Herpetological Review 37(1)) states, "With reference to Obbes' work, it has not been previously recorded that at least some of his line drawings used in the de Roij volumes, including the figure [of the Mangrove Snake], were based on watercolors likely prepared using live specimens shipped to him from Java. In this case, the original watercolor measures 29 x 41 cm."

The second watercolor is perhaps more interesting in an enigmatic sort of way. The watercolor is of a Malayopython reticulatus (Reticulated Python):

However, in the book, the snake has transformed into Python curtus (Blood Python):

In my opinion the body shape and tail work much better as a Blood Python than as a Reticulated Python. It is difficult to surmise the process of illustration here. Clearly the Reticulated Python pattern is correct, as are the colors - suggesting the snake was drawn from life. The pattern of the Blood Python is also accurate, and the body shape seems accurate, which might necessarily had to have been drawn from life, since a preserved specimen's shape may be difficult to accurately depict. Perhaps most curious, is that the book offers a proportion to life of  "X 2/5". The head length in the printed drawing is  25 mm, giving a life size head length of 62.5 mm (about 2.5 inches). This is a reasonable length for a Blood Python, but not for anything, but a very young Reticulated Python. This leaves me wondering about the original watercolor, and the relationship between the two illustrations.

A search for information about Joan François Obbes didm not yield much written information. I did find references to a couple of books containing information about him. Both are encyclopedias of Netherlands artists. I also found several of his watercolors have been sold, particularly through auction. Many of these are of birds, while others are of people. I could not find any other herpetological watercolors, although undoubtedly more exist.

01 February 2015

Antoine Jean Baptist Vaillant (1817-1852)

Antoine Jean Baptist Vaillant was an artist at thé Museum d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris. He illustrated numerus zoological works. Among the herpetological works he illustrated were the turtles and crocodiles in Auguste Dumeril's (1852-1856) Description des Reptiles nouveaux ou imparfaitement connus de la collection du Museum d'Histoire Naturelle and Alphonse Guichenot (1850) Reptiles et poissons. Exploration scientifique de l'Algérie pendant les années 1840-1842.

This original water color is of Daboia mauritanica (Dumeril & Bibron, 1848) is from Guichenot's Algeria work. It is interesting to note the overall lack of detail in this watercolor. There is a small section of the neck with scales drawn in and a small section of just the scale detail separate from the snake. I didn't scan the back of this watercolor, but it has several pencil sketches, mostly of mollusks.

The final (published) version of this plate in Guichenot is also illustrated here. You can see the much greater detail with the entire body covered with scales. There are also two illustrations of the head which were not included on the watercolor, but were presumably drawn elsewhere. It would be interesting to know how much Vaillant oversaw the engraving. This plate includes credit to Visto sculps (the engraver), this was J. P. Visto (Vistau) and N. Remond imp. (the printer).

Apparently the plate was printed in 1848, two years before the official publication date of 1850. Dumeril and Bibron wrote their description in 1848 and Gray cites their description in his synonymy of Clotho? mauritanica, causing a bit of confusion for a while since Gray's description was published before Dumeril and Bibron's description that he cited. Today Dumeril and Bibron are credited with the original description. (see the Reptile Database: http://reptile-database.reptarium.cz/species?genus=Daboia&species=mauritanica)

For more images of A.J.B. Vaillant's published illustrations see: http://www.photo.rmn.fr/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=2CO5PCU49K8R#/SearchResult&VBID=2CO5PCU49JYQ

29 January 2015

Watercolors by Paulus Knogh (1737-1802)

After reading Art and Nature I started thinking about the original art that I have - I don't have many. I may as well try to post the few that I do have. The oldest original art that I have are two watercolors by Paulus Knogh (1737-1802). Knogh was a Dutch mathematician and physician who was also an artist and art collector. As an artist he specialized in drawing insects and amphibians. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a few of his insect watercolors on their website.

To me these paintings are very reminiscent of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). As can be seen by his work on the Rijkmuseum website, Knogh was certainly aware of Merian's work. Another artist who was heavily influenced by Merian was August Johan Roesel von Rosenhof (1705-1759). His first book was on insects - Today he is often considered one of the fathers of German Entomology. His second book was on frogs and is still considered to have among the best illustrations of frogs ever produced. Here is one of the illustrations from Rosel von Rosenhof's book. It appears to me that Knogh also knew of this work (I plan to discuss both Merian and Roesel von Rosenhof in future postings). In these pictures you can see the Knogh paintings seem more realistic and finely painted than the Roesel von Rosenhof - but keep in mind the Knogh are original watercolors and the Roesel von Rosenhof is a hand-colored engraving from his book.

WorldCat lists two books published by Knogh. One of them, published in 1803, Museum Knoghianum continens Praeparata anatomica ... Kabinet van naturalien has a title that suggests these painting may have been completed as part of this book. Unfortunately I am unable to locate a copy of this book or even a complete citation to indicate if it has any plates.

Art & Nature: Three Centuries of Natural History Art from Around the World

Art and Nature: Three Centuries of Natural History Art from Around the World

By Judith Magee

Art and Nature is a well illustrated book highlighting the natural history art collection in the British Museum. The book is divided into five chapters covering different regions of exploration: the Americas, Australasia, Asia, Africa, and Europe. The principle focus of each chapter is the artists who painted natural history subjects during the age of exploration.

Since the basis of most of the illustrations is the natural history art collection in the British Museum, there is certainly a British emphasis in the discussion of artists. However, given the extent of British exploration during the 1600-1900s, this emphasis covers quite a lot. The British Museum collection does include several non-British artists, like William Bartram, and this book includes a nice discussion of them as well.

Most of the illustrations in this book are of original art, not the reproductions in books. There are exceptions, but like the title suggests, the book is about the art of nature as opposed to the illustration (in books) of nature. This is especially nice since few people will ever have the opportunity to see the original art from the exploration of the world.

I quite enjoyed this book and the author's writing style. In fact Magee has written a couple of other books, The Art and Science of William Bartram, Chinese Art and the Reeves Collection, and The Art of India, each of which is a more in-depth look at topics covered in this book. More biographical information as well as more  pictures of the art by these artists. I look forward to reading each of these books.

Art and Nature (Originally published as Art of Nature) offers a good introduction with enough biographical information to peak an interest in further study. It is a nice introduction into the artists of the period. Most of the artists were key figures in the illustration of books as well.

Magee, Judith. 2009. Art and Nature: Three Centuries of Natural History Art from Around the World. Greystone Books, Vancouver, 256 p. (ISBN: 9781553655176)

25 January 2015

Images of Science: A History of Scientific Illustration

Images of Science: A History of Scientific Illustration

by Brian J. Ford

In my efforts to study the history of natural history illustration, I hope to use this blog to discuss the topic. In doing this I plan to post notes or reviews of the various books and articles I read about the topic. 

After being inspired by Darwin's Ghosts to learn more about the history of natural history illustration, the first book I read was Images of Science: A History of Scientific Illustration by Brian J. Ford. This book is a broad survey of scientific illustration with eight chapters covering different types of scientific illustration: beginning with cave paintings, then moving on to human anatomy, animals, plants, rocks and minerals, maps, space and finally microscopic illustrations.

With such broad coverage, each chapter is necessarily an introduction to the topic covered. For me, being familiar with animal illustrations, that chapter was a bit of a let-down, simply because I felt several things of great interest were either barely touched upon, or skipped entirely. I can only assume the same is true for the other chapters as well.

The interesting thing is that because I know very little about the what all of the other chapters covered, I didn't feel they were inadequate. I found them interesting and informative and in most cases they left me wanting to learn more about what they covered. In this respect I think the author accomplished exactly what he had hoped. In fact, shortly after reading the chapter on botany, I read: 

Tangerini, Alice. 2014. Botanical Illustration: The past carries forward. Journal of Natural Science Illustration. 46 (3): 11-17. 

This article complimented the book chapter. My understanding of the article was enhanced having read the book.

If the history of scientific illustration is something you would like an introduction to, this book is one to consider. It is well illustrated and offers a good starting point. It is not authoritative, but is doesn't claim to be. It is a nice introduction or survey of the topic.

Ford, Brian J. 1993. Images of Science: A History of Scientific Illustration. Oxford University Press, New York, viii, 208 p. (ISBN: 0195209834)

23 January 2015

Darwin in Context

Over the past couple of months I happen to read two books about Darwin: The first was Darwin's Ghosts by Rebecca Stott and the second was The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen. Both of these books have inspired me in different ways. I have already begun to act on my inspiration from Darwin's Ghosts, but having just finished The Reluctant Mr. Darwin today I'll have to see if my motivation results in action.

In Darwin's Ghosts, Rebecca Stott tells the story of many of Darwin's predecessors who touched on different ideas of evolution—From Aristotle to Wallace and many individuals in-between. With the exception of Wallace, no one else proposed anything like natural selection. Many of the people discussed in the book didn't really propose much of a mechanism for evolution, or transmutation, but they did propose that species evolved or changed—that is they were not created. Some of them even went so far as to suggest that all species developed from a single common ancestor.

What made this book inspiring for me was that Stott, placed each person in context of the social and political environment in which they lived. Each of them in their own way was a revolutionary, at least in their thinking. For some, to suggest that species changed, as opposed to have been created by a higher power, was extraordinarily risky. But beyond that, to develop their ideas, based on their observations and what they had read, placed them as intellectuals and free-thinkers. They were definitely coming up with new ideas that were very radical, given the culture they lived in. It makes you think, what are the unsaid cultural assumptions that limit our thinking today. It is nice to assume that we live in an environment of free thought, that allows for everyone's ideas, but I am not sure that is true. Occasionally we still hear stories of peer-review papers that are rejected and highly criticized, only to receive a Nobel prize later on. The same is true for works of fiction that are rejected multiple times, only to become best sellers once they finally get published.

I have strayed a bit from how this inspired me. I already knew about of many of the scientists discussed in the book, but I hadn't thought of them in the context of their everyday lives before. Some of them were involved in explorations or published books that included beautiful natural history illustrations. I have been interested in natural history illustration for a long time, but not just in the illustrations as art, or even the illustrations as a means of communicating scientific information. Some of what interests me with scientific illustration is the evolution of illustrationfrom simple wood blocks to metal engravings, then to wood engravings, then lithography, etc. Along with changes in the medium used for illustration, techniques were developed in older mediums to replicate the benefits of other mediums. For example, wood engravings took some techniques from metal engravings, and stippled metal engravings developed from aspects of lithography.

Furthermore, I am interested in the illustrators themselves. Some scientists illustrated their own works, but many books that are renowned for their illustrations, were illustrated by little known illustrators. Take for example, Louis Agassiz. His publications frequently include outstanding illustrations. It is common to read about how Agassiz couldn't find an illustrator that he was satisfied with in the USA, so he brought Antoine Sonrel to the USA as his personal illustrator. Beyond this tidbit of information, little has been published about Antoine Sonrel—He deserves more. Sonrel is just one example, since most scientists have not illustrated their own works, there are many many more illustrators that are virtually unknown today. Their work as artists is overshadowed by the science they illustrated. But you have to ask, what would the science have been without their illustrations?

David Quammen's book, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, has the same general approach as Stott's book, in that Quammen places Darwin in his cultural context to discuss why it took twenty years and the threat of loosing priority to Wallace for Darwin to publish On the Origin of Species. It is an enjoyable read and covers some of the same people and topics that Stott's book does, but from a different angle and at times with a considerably different perspective. As true title suggests Quammen's book is much more Darwin focused.

The inspiration I found in Quammen's book stems from one short section, perhaps one sentence. At one point Quammen mentions the overriding importance of On the Origin of Species, but then adds that it is odd that relatively few biologists, or even evolutionary biologists have actually read the book. This struck me, as I must confess, I am guilty. I have a couple of copies of the book and it has been on my "to read" shelf for years. I just never seem to get around to it.

Now that these two books have set the stage, putting evolutionary ideas and Darwin himself in cultural context, I think it is high time I read On the Origin of Species. Without having begun, I would recommend reading Both Stott's book and Quammen's book, perhaps before reading Darwin's book. Part of my fear in reading Darwin has been that I know there are some portions of the book that are known not to apply and I haven't wanted to be disappointed in the book as a whole. I think now that Darwin's Ghosts and The Reluctant Mr. Darwin have prepared me for these portions, by adding a context for me to interpret them, I won't be disappointed at all. In fact, I may be even more impressed with the work, knowing more about it's history and the scientific and social environment in which it was published.

20 June 2010

In Pursuit of the Gene

In Pursuit of the Gene

From Darwin to DNA

by James Schwartz

This wonderul book is a nice mix of history of genetics and biography of the key figures in genetics, beginning with Darwin and ending with Muller - a span of about 75 years. It is written with the layman in mind, but anyone with some background in genetics will probably get the most out of this book. Rather than simply offer a history of genetics, or a series of biographies, the author has combined these topics into a captivating story that is both well researched and a joy to read. Key scientific experiments are explained so that someone with a basic understanding of genetics can understand them, and enough background is given about people involved to make them interesting personalities.

One underlying aspect of the book is the unfolding of how science progresses. From the bull-headed pursuit of an idea that proves to be completely wrong, to the insightful genius whose ideas take decades to confirm. It includes attempted plagiarism of scientific ideas and results as well as another type of scientific theft which is still common in some labs - the taking and claiming of all data that comes out of a lab by the major professor or primary investigator.

In writing this book the author included footnotes that illustrate the extent of his research. Personal letters, journals, and other documents were heavily used and allowed the author to present aspects of the history of genetics that have not been presented before making this book a valuable reference.

I have purposely not gone into specifics about this book, for I could not do it justice. Perhaps I am biased since I have always been interested in genetics and in the history of biology, but I truely believe this book will be of interest to a broad audience. It is well written and interesting, not only for the direct subject of genetics, or for the biographies, but also for the way it covers the development of scientific ideas. I highly recommend this book to anyone working in a scientific lab, particularly graduate students and professors. In addition anyone interested in the subjects covered will find their interest fuelled by this book. I have already ordered another book, recommened by the author in the acknowledgements.