Friday, May 24, 2013

The Compleat Naturalist. A Life of Linnaeus by Wilfrid Blunt.

The life of Carl Linnaeus is a story rich in potential for a writer. Here is a man who made a unique and important contribution to biology with his development of a binomial nomenclature for classifying plants and animals. He was both an explorer and a brilliant scientist. It should not be difficult for a moderately skilled biographer to craft an interesting, if not captivating, account of his life. Wilfrid Blunt reveals how it is possible to mishandle a promising topic.

The irony is that Blunt damages his project by working too hard to craft it. He employs a style of language that is archaic, highly embellished and pretentious. Blunt writes “To this humble sanctuary men of science came from all over Europe to pay homage to the greatest naturalist of his day”(Blunt, p. 219). It would be simpler to say “Colleagues traveled far to visit Linnaeus in his home.” Blunt’s writing is scattershot with French and Italian affectations that contribute nothing to the topic. He phrases awkwardly to show his learning. Instead of saying “Possibly Rudbeck’s wife tried to seduce Linnaeus,” Blunt writes “Possibly this hussy played Potiphar’s wife to him”(Blunt, p. 39). Blunt was seventy in 1971, when the book was published. The manner is archaic even for a man of his age, belonging more to the Victorian Era than the 20th Century, in which the author grew to maturity.

The comical prose of the author is almost matched by that of Linnaeus. While this scientist was a skilled compiler and cataloguer of plants, he was not a compelling writer. For example:

“The actual petals of a flower contribute nothing to generation, serving only as the bridal bed which the great Creator has so gloriously prepared, adorned with such precious bed-curtains, and perfumed with so many sweet scents in order that the bridegroom and bride may therein celebrate their nuptials with greater solemnity” (Blunt, p. 34).

Our botanist can be excused since this style was not uncommon for his time (not good writing, not scientific description, but not an uncommon style). Unfortunately, since Blunt writes so poorly himself, he does not recognize bad writing when he sees it in others. So he fills pages with indented paragraphs of Linnaeus’s miserable poetry. It gets worse when Linnaeus visits Lappland on his first field study. His diary sounds as pretentious and flowery as that of a drunk wine enthusiast on his first trip to Napa Valley. As if the prose of both Blunt and Linnaeus were not enough on their own to torture a reader, the author feeds a compulsion to decorate his book with the excruciating poetry of Emily Carrington and the abject, gilt flattery of 18th Century admirers.

Enough about the writing. What about the information? The book offers a straightforward chronology with little interpretation, which is fine. The basic information on the botanist’s life is covered. Although Blunt clearly likes his subject, he is not deceived concerning Linnaeus’s flaws. When the scientist shows his arrogance, fails to credit Georg Ehret for his contribution to the Genera Plantarum, or lies to his benefactors about the extent of his travels, Blunt does not hide from the responsibility of a thoughtful biographer to dispassionately reveal the truth.

Unfortunately, Blunt is not a scientist or even a strong critical thinker. His accounts of Linnaeus’s flaws are based on the observations of others, which he dutifully cites. The author was an art teacher, painter and curator of the Watts Gallery. With such credentials, there is a lot he misses. In the section of the book where Linnaeus first sees a Jew, Blunt neglects to discuss this zoologist’s subsequent classification of Jews as a separate “race.” While Race Classification represents the beginning of an ugly chapter in Western pseudoscience, it is not a surprise that Blunt would fail to note the significance. I’m not sure he was aware of Linnaeus’s role in this embarrassing history.

Since this biographer lacks a science background, he does not attempt to elucidate the specifics of binomial nomenclature. Neither does Blunt follow the evolution of Linnaeus’ method which led to this classification system or other observations. The most he does in the realm of science is to include, in his appendix, a discussion of Linnaeus’ system written by a colleague.

The Compleat Naturalist is more a romantic meditation on nature and the life of a man who immersed himself in its study, than it is a scientific book. I cannot help but think that a biography of Linnaeus, written by a science writer, would communicate an understanding of which this painter is incapable. So we have the topic of a scientist, written by a non-scientist. A creation based on writing, produced by a painter. For all I know, Blunt may be a fine artist with a brush, but he’s a finger-painter with words.

Blunt, Wilfrid. The Compleat Naturalist. A Life of Linnaeus. New York: The Viking Press, 1971.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins.

River Out of Eden is a series of meditations on Natural Selection by an author who has a fascinatingly original scientific mind. In a world that is filled with unreason and superstition, it is a pleasure to sit back and read the rational ideas of such an author on a subject that has been so thoroughly tested by the scientific community.

Unfortunately, Dawkins begins with a terribly written first chapter. “The Digital River” of the chapter title is a river of DNA code that we can follow to reveal descent. Fair enough, but the metaphor is flogged continuously, and additional metaphors are introduced haphazardly. For example, there is an unnecessary discussion of nerve cells, likened to a mixture of analog and digital technology, complete with a lengthy explanation of the differences between the two technologies. This digression could have been erased from the chapter without disturbing the main point. Science doesn’t need to read like bad Dada poetry. “The Digital River” could have been written far more economically by presenting the empirical evidence and moving on. Instead, it is the dead fish in the River Out of Eden.

Chapter two, “All Africa and Her Progenies,” represents a vast improvement. It starts with a refutation of cultural relativism and exhibits how irrational, untestable ideas do not belong on the same shelf with evidence-based ones. The author continues with an excellent discussion of Lynn Margulis’ research on mitochondria, and how this former bacterium can be used to trace descent matrilineally. Dawkins succeeds in presenting a theory of “African Eve” which is far more compelling than the myth of Eve in Eden.

“Do Good by Stealth” is the next offering. It answers (alright, beats to death) a creationist argument on the adaptation of an orchid which permits pollination by a male wasp. Dawkins is feisty and animated as he presents overwhelming physical evidence to refute the claim that this floral architecture had to be created perfectly the first time in order to succeed. By the end of this discussion, the only “Intelligent Design” left standing is the structure of the author’s refutation.

“God’s Utility and Function” is the continuation of a discussion established in Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. This essay elaborates on the human propensity to label activities as either good or evil and to look for purpose in life, often expressed through religion. Dawkins counters that the function of organisms is simply to put their genetic material into the next generation. He concludes:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (Dawkins, p. 133).

Here the hard realities of science trump any Pollyanna religious or purpose-driven notions.

But as usual, the reality is far more thrilling than any myth. Dawkins final chapter “The Replication Bomb,” shows how our DNA structure, coupled with Natural Selection, allows us an infinite range of variation. Since humans are now sending radio waves into the universe, “an expanding shell of information-rich radio waves is advancing outward from the planet at the speed of light” (Dawkins, pp. 144-5). These radio waves, because they are produced by an animal with an infinite range of variation, have an infinite range of expression. One closes the book with a sense of our possibilities that is more promising, and a greater testament to humanity, than any faith could offer, because it is based on observations of the decidedly real.

Dawkins, Richard. River Out of Eden. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

For a review of another book on human evolution, see:

For a review of  a book on the history of science vs religion, see:

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Scientists by John Gribbin.

There is a time when one has to put aside the objective-sounding pedantry of book review formulae and say “this is a great book.” The discovery and reading of John Gribbin’s The Scientists is one such time.   I apologize for that unseemly outburst of enthusiasm and will attempt to maintain composure. Gribbin’s writing style is clear. His sentence structure is uncomplicated and graceful, which is almost an anomaly among science writers.

The chapters are arranged chronologically to show the evolution of scientific method and the order of conclusions drawn from its employment. One of Gribbin’s most enticing devices is what he does within this chronology. He shows the development of ideas through a series of short biographies on the individual scientists who are credited with first expressing these ideas. This permits the reader to not only follow the progression of scientific thought, but also to learn about the lives of the scientists themselves. By personalizing the subject of science history, Gribbin draws-in those less technically acquainted with the information.

In spite of the effectiveness of this method, Gribbin is self-conscious of his choice. He understands that most modern science historians present their work by following the progress of ideas, without  emphasis on individual heroic genius. So throughout the book, Gribbin attempts to mitigate the effects of his approach. During the introduction, the author stresses that science has not progressed “as a result of the work of a string of irreplaceable geniuses” (Gribbin, p. xix). Instead, progress results from a step by step building of one tested conclusion upon another. When enough information has been gathered, someone takes the next step. Periodically, Gribbin highlights times when anyone could have gotten credit for a discovery: Leibnitz and Newton discovering The Calculus independently, Darwin and Wallace coming up with Natural Selection in the same time period, and the dramatic race between three teams to publish first on the structure of DNA, all make this point.  Einstein’s revolutionizing Theory of Relativity is presented as “inspired” but “not the isolated act of a genius it is often portrayed” (Gribbin, p. 594). Even during his conclusion the author continues to defend his approach.

“But if I am old-fashioned, it is because I choose to be so, not because I am unaware that I am out of step. I am also aware that there are almost as many approaches to the study of history as there are historians, and each approach can shed light on the subject” (Gribbin, p. 613).

Because Gribbin’s approach conveys knowledge on two levels, providing both the chronology of discovery and the biographies of scientists, it hardly needs defending.  The work is immensely engaging and informative.

Another difficulty with which the author must grapple, is how to illustrate scientific models while avoiding a lot of calculations. Modern science undoubtedly relies on a mathematics that is beyond the understanding of the common reader. So this historian must present ideas without overwhelming equations. Undoubtedly, something is missing. But if an author wishes to present this subject to an audience that lacks the literacy of a professional scientist, some compromises are necessary.

One area where the author does not compromise is around the sophistication of the concepts. On several occasions I found myself struggling. Then, about half way through the chapter on Quantum Mechanics, I was utterly lost. However, I saw this as a deficiency in my education, not as the fault of the writer. I subsequently resolved to spend more time learning physics and got some titles from the library. But this reveals a strength of Professor Gribbin’s. If a reader finishes your book wanting to learn more, you have done a fine job of sparking curiosity and inspiring further education. Because Gribbin is so skillful at presenting biographical and scientific information in a clear manner, and because he leaves you wanting more, I recommend The Scientists to those seeking a good general history of Western Science.

Gribbin, John. The Scientists. New York: Random House, 2002.

For a review of a book on the history of science vs religion, see:

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Janson's History of Art by H.W. Janson

Most lovers of Western visual arts have their favorite basic overview text. Since these texts tend to contain approximately 1000 pages, and represent a great investment of time, it’s a good idea to discover why someone is recommending a particular study. You should know if their criteria matches yours. The following are my reasons for recommending Janson’s History of Art.

The structure of the book: If an author is going to cover an overwhelming breadth of historical material, they need to present their work in an organized fashion. Janson’s is a well-organized and indexed chronology from the Paleolithic to the Present. The book is divided into parts, based on time periods. These time periods are labeled with familiar headings (Ancient, Middle Ages, Renaissance, etc.). Chapters within these periods represent the major art movements and styles. Sections within the chapters show different expressions of the movements. There are copious colored photos of art works which represent each of the movements presented. We know that this is nothing like seeing the real thing, but it’s still a cornucopia for the eyes and an important feature in any book on the visual arts. Janson’s structure permits a multitude of individualized approaches to the subject. One may read the book from beginning to end and get the story of Western art’s evolution. One may pinpoint a particular time period or movement as with any reference book. It’s hard to get lost.

Importantly, the publisher has continued to update the text since its first appearance. H.W. Janson came out with his book in 1962. He died in 1982, but Prentice Hall has continued to produce updated editions using a team of authors. A 9th edition was just released in January of 2013. The book has sold more than two million copies and has been translated into fifteen languages.

Equally important, Janson was an exceptionally lucid writer. The authors have done little to alter his approach over the years, and have attempted to remain within the style of the original. Even though I initially bought my copy as a reference book, I ended up reading it cover to cover because of the approachable, engaging presentation.

There are notable shortcomings to discuss. Unfortunately, these are some of the same flaws that plague most reference texts on Western art. First, there is little discussion of non-Western influences on Western art. Though no text can ignore the effect of African masks on the development of Cubism, this coverage is more the exception than the rule. Second, how do you include minorities and women in the story of art when they have been historically excluded? Those individuals who decided what was great art, who purchased great art, and who were accepted within art circles had been, with few exceptions, white men. So the economic, philosophical and stylistic influences on the evolution of Western art, were also primarily produced by white men. The historical record of what works survived and who influenced the story is also skewed towards white male artists. Later chapters in Janson, focusing on the modern period, are more inclusive since the art world became more inclusive. However, the biases regarding influence cannot be ignored. The only way I see to rectify this imbalance would be for the readers themselves to seek out writings which discuss the more obscure women and minorities who did exist on the periphery of the exclusionary art world of an earlier time. But the sad truth is that their influence was minor and their part in an overview will be minor.

A note on the purchase of a copy: it’s a hell of an investment regardless of the reader’s means. Online purchased new copies average $140.00. But used copies contain almost all of the important information. Late Renaissance Mannerism has not changed with the passage of time between 1962 and 2013. Used copies start at $20.00. Also, because this is one of the most popular texts, any reasonably large library system will have it.

I hope that this recommendation has helped those seeking an overview of Western art. As stated at the outset, see if my priorities jive with yours.

Janson, Horst Woldemar. Janson’s History of Art. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2013.

For an introductory book on the history of art, see: