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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.

Amazon.com info
Hardcover 544 pages  
ISBN: 0674027132
Salesrank: 1498592
Weight:1.8 lbs
Published: 2007 Harvard University Press
Marketplace:New from $20.99:Used from $2.00
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Amazon.co.uk info
Hardcover 500 pages  
ISBN: 0434012599
Salesrank: 657255
Weight:1.76 lbs
Published: 2007 William Heinemann Ltd
Marketplace:New from £17.76:Used from £7.69
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Amazon.ca info
Hardcover
ISBN: 0674027132
Salesrank: 1137882
Weight:1.8 lbs
Published: 2007 Harvard University Press
Amazon price CDN$ 175.29
Marketplace:New from CDN$ 57.79:Used from CDN$ 25.59
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Product Description

"Endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved," Darwin famously concluded The Origin of Species, and for confirmation we look to...the guinea pig? How this curious creature and others as humble (and as fast-breeding) have helped unlock the mystery of inheritance is the unlikely story Jim Endersby tells in this book.

Biology today promises everything from better foods or cures for common diseases to the alarming prospect of redesigning life itself. Looking at the organisms that have made all this possible gives us a new way of understanding how we got here--and perhaps of thinking about where we're going. Instead of a history of which great scientists had which great ideas, this story of passionflowers and hawkweeds, of zebra fish and viruses, offers a bird's (or rodent's) eye view of the work that makes science possible.

Mixing the celebrities of genetics, like the fruit fly, with forgotten players such as the evening primrose, the book follows the unfolding history of biological inheritance from Aristotle's search for the "universal, absolute truth of fishiness" to the apparently absurd speculations of eighteenth-century natural philosophers to the spectacular findings of our day--which may prove to be the absurdities of tomorrow.

The result is a quirky, enlightening, and thoroughly engaging perspective on the history of heredity and genetics, tracing the slow, uncertain path--complete with entertaining diversions and dead ends--that led us from the ancient world's understanding of inheritance to modern genetics.