Typically, the telling of science history goes something like this… ‘Mr. Brilliant Scientist was born on such and such date, in such and such town, and this is what he brilliantly discovered before he died on such and such date.’…Zzzzzzzzzz. So, understandably, many of us don’t think of the history of scientific exploration as riveting, edge-of-your seat fare.
A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology turns the telling of science history on its head. Added bonus, you’ll have fun while you read it, turning pages eagerly and quickly as the author, like a close (and wicked smart) friend, almost gossips with you about scientific giants; luminaries who, despite dedication and expertise, often stumbled upon their discoveries.
Edersby’s Engaging Approach to Science History
Celebrity Organisms of A Guinea Pig’s History
This historical book takes a unique approach in several ways. Most obviously, each chapter is built around a biological ‘guinea pig’, a specific plant or animal that inspired research and spawned important scientific discoveries. The organisms are the celebrities in this book, and the story of the researchers and their work is woven into this context.
Readers begin their adventure with the now extinct Equus quagga, one of which was bred with Lord Morton’s mare, producing surprising and confusing results. The history of biology then winds though discoveries surrounding ten more organisms, before ending with modern-day OncoMouse® and genetic engineering.
Experience Discovery from the Researcher’s Perspective
Endersby also crafts this story in a way that allows the reader to experience the scientific climate and perspective of the times; illustrating how these researchers struggled to reconcile their scientific questions and findings with what was understood to be true at the time.
As the author explains, “…hanging on to what we now believe makes it harder…to understand how and why people once thought differently. Aristotle, Morton, Darwin, and…[other figures] believed many things that no one believes any more, not because they were fools, but because they made sense of the world in quite different ways.”
For example, Endersby reintroduces us to Gregor (Johann) Mendel, who was not an Austrian monk (as all the textbooks tell us); furthermore, if someone would have addressed the good friar as the ‘Father of Modern Genetics’ that certainly would have been news to him. Mendel’s story is far more interesting than what we have been previous taught.
History Is a Messy Web of Interrelationships
It is convenient to look back at history and see it as a series of monumental discoveries, puzzle pieces, that all fit neatly together to form a path leading directly to our modern understanding of science. But that isn’t how science really works. Life and science are messy places, where happenstance often leads to discovery. The Guinea Pig’s History of Biology is a thoroughly engaging account of history that enables the reader to see how key scientific discoveries, and our current understanding of the natural world, actually unfolded.
About the Author
Jim Endersby is currently a lecturer in the History Department at the University of Sussex, where he specializes in studying the history of science.
A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology, Endersby’s first book, won the Royal Society of Literature’s Jerwood Prize. His latest book, Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science, has just been published by the University of Chicago Press (April 2008).
- Title:A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology
- Author: Jim Endersby
- Publisher & Year: Harvard University Press, 2007
- List Price: $27.95
- Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-674-02713-8
- Verdict? This book is an absolute delight! It will painlessly raise your IQ.
See Suite101 reviews of other historical books, including Enoch Callaway’s Asylum: A Mid-Century Madhouse and Its Lessons about Our Mentally Ill Today and Philip Sugden’s The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. To learn more about biology and genetics, see the science education website Science Prof Online.