Friday, January 28, 2011

A "Remarkable" history of science book

A month ago, I finished "Remarkable Creatures" by Sean Carroll (biologist Sean Carroll, not physicist Sean Carroll). It was a wonderful review of all of the scientists who have contributed to our evolving understanding of ... animal evolution. Beginning with Darwin and Wallace, this book relates the tales of these explorers and adventurers, some leaving behind promising medical careers to go fossil hunting in the dangerous jungles, deserts and remote places on our planet. But there was something relatively unique to this book, among the many many other excellent books on history of science that I have read. This book managed to be an incredibly effective history of the ideas of science, by not letting itself be drawn in by the powerful personalities who were doing the science.
To this end, this book showed a side of science that many books written for a popular audience fail to do. Despite the fact that it doesn't make nearly as compelling a story, Darwin didn't "prove" evolution to be "true." Neither did Wallace, nor did Eugene Dubois (who found Java Man) nor did Roy Chapman Andrews, who found some of the first skulls of the earliest mammals. In this book, Carroll is able to show how tentative and gradual scientific "revolutions" really are, without seeming wishy washy and "we don't know anything for certain". No one scientist acts alone to prove a theory to be true, but all of their findings, taken together, begin to bring a picture into focus, or begin to assemble the pieces to a puzzle. Some pieces are more important than others, but no single one stands alone.
How does he do this? By making the structure of the book follow the puzzle of science, rather than merely the personalities, or even the chronology. He doesn't begin with Darwin, but rather we are reminded that the question of the origin of species didn't start with Darwin by a prologue about the prolific naturalist Alexander Humboldt, whose books were the only ones that Darwin took with him on the Beagle, and indeed, those which inspired Darwin to be a scientist. These books, even with the knowledge contained in them, also suggested the gaps that existed. These led Darwin to his adventures and to his theory of natural selection, which had been germinating for quite some time. He knew how controversial this would be, so he kept his book under wraps for ten years, until he got word from Alfred Russell Wallace asking him for advice on a nearly identical theory. But another reason that he kept this under wraps, is that he didn't exactly have all the evidence that he wanted. The fossil evidence just wasn't there.
Which leads us to the next step in the journey, as scientists and explorers take up this challenge, each finding suggesting a new avenue of research, another gap. There is no missing link, because each time you find one it shows you that the chain is bigger than you thought, and that there are more gaps than you thought. Each found "missing" link comes with evidence of another.
Carroll manages to infuse his book with this logic, without hitting you over the head with it. We are amazed to learn the human stories of the incredible cast of characters. But the main character of the book, the driver of the narrative, is the scientific problem of where species come from, and how they change. This is as it should be in a history of science, but it happens all too rarely.


sewa mobil said...

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Sanjay said...

Thanks for that writeup. It's so much harder to write a compelling narrative about an idea than it is to write about a person (or persons). Harder both because ideas don't necessarily follow conventional story arcs, and because you have to be so thoroughly knowledgeable about an area of research to be able to trace an idea's history...

Cedar said...

Great point Sanjay. Part of the reason that I think extensive background knowledge in science is so important is that it reminds us that there is always more background knowledge to be gotten. It is so hard to portray this without making every search for knowledge seem equally incomplete.