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Tami Port
Kevin Arthur

Jim Endersby

A Guinea Pig's History of Biology

The history of biology is usually told in terms of the work of famous biologists. But it is also interesting to find out how the study of a given species has contributed to biology over the years. In A Guinea Pig's History of Biology Jim Endersby presents the histories of a number of such species.

It's a novel concept, but I felt that it took some time to get going - the early chapters are really the 'famous person' style of writing. The first chapter 'Lord Morton's Mare' is essentially an introduction to pre-Darwinian biology. Then comes Passionflowers, as studied by Darwin. There have been plenty of histories written about the species for chapter 3 - it is Homo Sapiens, with a look at Galton's eugenics. Chapter 4 - Hawkweed - is largely about Mendel, but it does get more into the spirit of the book, explaining how the confusion this plant brought to early studies of genetics. Evening Primrose, the subject of the next chapter also brought a fair amount of confusion. Then the book gets on to some of the standard experimental organisms - Drosophilia fruit flies, Guinea Pigs and bacteriophage. Endersby explains the benefits which came when a number of different groups decided to study the same organism. Commercially important organisms such as Corn also get a place, but researchers have found that it may be better to study Thale Cress - a weed, and in the animal kingdom the transparency of Zebrafish is a great advantage. The final chapter - OncoMouse® - is a discussion of some philosophical and ethical issues in biology.

So I was a bit doubtful about the concept of this book, as it sometimes made it difficult to follow the timeline of the ideas being discussed. I felt that when it got to the second half of the twentieth century it was more successful in showing the breadth of research which was going on. Also Endersby is a skilled writer, and I felt that he does well in conveying the struggles of biologists to make sense of living things over the last two centuries.  |  Chronon Critical Points  |  Recent Science Book Reviews