A guinea pig's history of biology
William Heinemann, £20.00.
ISBN 9780 4340 1259
This is an enthralling telling of the greatest discoveries in the field of inheritance via the organisms that made them possible. The history and use of passionflowers, maize, guinea pigs, fruit flies, GM mice and others are intriguing stories in their own right. The science that accompanies them is an accessible bonus, making this the best kind of popular science book – one to be enjoyed by layperson and scientist alike.
The test subjects' engaging narratives display how science and society intertwine, giving a fascinating portrayal of scientific endeavour set in its cultural context. For example, the abolition of glass tax fostered an explosion of exotic plant cultivators including Darwin, whilst fruit flies bridged the Cold War gulf, transcending political differences to create a “fly boy” community.
The eponymous guinea pig may seem humble, but leads a triple life. Its initial association with humans was as a valuable source of protein in the Andes, which led to their domestication. The docility that accompanied this taming, with their small size and comparatively rapid breeding cycle led guinea pigs to new incarnations: the family pet and the definitive experimental subject. Despite the titular name-check and their contribution towards 23 Nobel Prizes, guinea pigs are the main focus of only one chapter.
This book expertly covers the broad range of organisms – animal, plant and microbial – that have furthered scientific knowledge. In fact, animals are not covered in detail until halfway through, but it's worth the wait for several reasons.
In covering this range, it highlights one of the oft-overlooked truths of animal experimentation: that it is only a small – but invaluable – fraction of biological research. It is not the be-all and end-all (as antivivisectionists like to portray animal researchers' view), but an integrated part of general biological endeavour.
The wide selection of living organisms also brings several other key aspects of science home to the reader, layperson and expert alike. From the outset, it is clear that differences between species, as well as the similarities, can illuminate the how and why of the human condition (see p223-4 for a discussion of the relative merits of rats and guinea pigs for modelling scurvy). It is also apparent that science is a process: today's answers are almost certainly wrong in some respects; but that does not mean that today's knowledge is worthless, or that we should cease to strive.
It is fascinating to see how often openness and collaboration have formed the backbone of successful science. Modern examples such as the Human Genome Project and EUMORPHIA (European Union Mouse Research for Public Health and Industrial Applications) are merely the latest in a long tradition of personal ambitions being put aside for the interest of the community and international endeavour.
Endersby touches on antivivisection, and rightly so as it is part of the cultural context. He does this only lightly, leaving the science to speak for itself, which it eloquently does. The case is more powerful for being understated.
This book is for anyone with an interest in biology, the scientific process, or how our understanding has been furthered by experimental organisms including animals.
Last edited: 27 August 2014 06:00