Book Review: Historical

Life's Splendid Drama: Evolutionary Biology and the Reconstruction of Life's Ancestry 1860-1940. Bowler, Peter J. 1996. 0-226-06921-4 (cloth US$37.95) 538 pp. The University of Chicago Press, 11030 South Langley Avenue, Chicago IL 60628
- Building on his established corpus of historical work, Peter Bowler's latest and most important book examines the forgotten legion of biologists who attempted to reconstruct the history of life on earth following the articulation of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Its temporal span is approximately from the publication of Darwin's Origin in 1859, to the evolutionary synthesis of the 1930s and the 1940s. According to Bowler, the vast majority of biologists, post-Origin, sought not to understand the mechanism of evolution, but instead were engaged in a vast scientific project to reconstruct the history of life on earth (hence, the proliferation of images of trees of life in the late nineteenth century). This was an onerous task that demanded knowledge and skills from diverse areas of biology and that frequently ended in blind alleys, irresolvable puzzles and endless frustration for the parties involved; yet according to Bowler, these were the most important concerns for most "evolutionary biologists" in the late nineteenth century. The title of his book, Life's Splendid Drama (borrowed with credit from paleontologist William Diller Matthew by way of the paleontologist Edwin H. Colbert), thus refers to the "drama" of efforts to trace the tortuous history of life on earth.

According to Bowler, the historical erasure of most of these biologists, many of whom were leading morphologists like Edwin S Goodrich, is mostly an artifact of historical writing. Bowler contends that because historians of science have focused on the fate of Darwinian selection theory, its conceptual origin, and its tortuous history of acceptance through the period recognized as the "eclipse of Darwin" to the evolutionary synthesis of the modern period, they have failed to properly consider that most biologists were actually focusing on the history and pattern of life on earth. The rise of the "glamorous" science of genetics, which aided understanding of the mechanism of evolution, only took more historical attention away from these biologists.

Bowler singles out three areas that were critical to understanding life's history: evolutionary morphology, paleontology, and biogeography. All had tumultuous histories in the late nineteenth century, but each adjusted to new questions arising from evolutionary concerns and began to look to each other for answers. In the process, Bowler argues, they created a coherent field of study associated with "evolutionary biology," and thus became the first generation of "evolutionary biologists." Most of Bowler's book is devoted to extensive analysis of the major questions in each of these areas in the late nineteenth century and how the fields interacted with each other to gain answers. Chapters are organized around the major debates of the late nineteenth century: the origin of the arthropods, the origin of the vertebrates, the evolution of fish to amphibians, the origin of birds and mammals, and the history of biogeography. Human evolution is omitted as readers are referred to Bowler's earlier book on the subject, Theories of Human Evolution: A Century of Debate, 1844-1944. As Bowler argues, it was this body of work that played an important role in the evolutionary synthesis of the 1930s and the 1940s, not so much by immediate "input" into the synthetic theory, but by paving the way for its eventual acceptance. The career of a second generation evolutionist, George Gaylord Simpson, the paleontological architect of the evolutionary synthesis, is the best example of this.

The book is rich in detail, yet as Bowler points out, it is only a sample of the attempts to reconstruct life's history. It is clearly written and the illustrations enhance the appearance of the book, but there are also an alarming number of typographical errors both in the scientific terms and in the text proper. His basic arguments are convincing and important. The book is also a valuable contribution to our understanding of the history of biology as it exhumes a number of important figures buried by the historical record, and brings attention to the painstaking process of phylogeny construction. The truth is that most historians, and some biologists, frequently forget that scientific research is often routine, tedious, and all too frequently results in dead-ends. It is thus welcome to bring the "everyday practice" of biology into historical relief.

Bowler's analysis is not without some problems, however. Two grow out of his choice of ambitious subtitle: "Evolutionary Biology and the Reconstruction of Life's Ancestry." The first will appear minor to its scientific readers as it evokes the feuding among historians of science about historiography (the technical term for the way that historians write their histories). It is, nonetheless important for his basic argument. Following the conventions of intellectual history that seek to understand the past on its own terms, Bowler explicitly states that he will not use modern terminology for his historical figures "to avoid imposing modern preconceptions onto the past" (p. xi). His final chapter elaborates this further, and even suggests that knowledge itself is linguistically mediated. Yet this does not seem to restrain Bowler's modernist use of the two most important terms for his analysis, "evolution," and "evolutionary biology," which, as he admits, were not used in the modern sense by his historical actors. Here Bowler, an eminently sensible historian has taken too seriously recent facile claims that the absence or restricted use of the terms implies that the subjects did not exist. Quite rightly so, Bowler bristles at such remarks as his understanding of the historical record indicates otherwise. In defense against such claims, Bowler goes out of his way to make his case by using modern terms; in so doing, unfortunately, he contradicts his methodology. My own sense is that Bowler's project would have been better served by consistently applying the methods of linguistic analysis that rely on accurate use of historical terms. His own analysis otherwise demonstrates wonderfully how the study of evolution, evolved; to miss out on the fumbling for terms and the fumbling for self-identification, is to miss the processual maturation of the body of science-and scientists-who recognized themselves explicitly as evolutionary biologists only during the evolutionary synthesis period of the 1940s (and even then this process was not completed). If evolutionary biologists could finally argue for a coherent, unifying discipline in the 1940s, it was because of the heroic efforts of their predecessors who paved the way; this is, after all, the point of Bowler's book.

Also troubling is the spotty inclusion of the "external" context of evolutionary thought. Here Bowler is following trends in historical scholarship that stress cultural forces at work in science (and says so explicitly, especially in the final chapter), but I found the references to these wider cultural conditions incompletely developed and inconsistently applied. As a result, Bowler's attempts to situate some of the historical figures in the context of "empire" or within movements of social progress associated with social Darwinism come across not so much as wrong, but as somewhat cursory remarks without the full force of gravity that they properly deserve.

Readers of this bulletin will have already picked up the second more serious problem with the book: there is little, if no treatment of the plant world. In all fairness, Bowler explicitly states that his book is restricted to the zoological attempts to reconstruct life's history, yet he makes claims about general patterns in evolutionary biology; nor does he offer any explanation for the omission of botany. He considers plants only when knowledge from botany informed matters of concern to zoologists. I could find only several instances where Bowler found examples of cross-over between zoologists and botanists (and only two botanists out of ninety-two historical figures are included in the biographical appendix). The major discussion of a botanical nature appears in the most valuable chapter of the book, on biogeography, where evidence from the plant fossil record contributed to debates associated with climatic cooling. Glossopteris, the fossil seed fern whose distribution paved the way for the acceptance of continental drift, makes a brief appearance in this chapter (but is not important enough for inclusion in the index along with other zoological critters). Given a book of this length intending to survey the history of evolutionary biology, and given that the late nineteenth century saw an explosive growth in the botanical equivalents of the same areas highlighted for zoology, the absence of botany is a serious omission. My own sense is that botany-and botanists-would have added even more complications to an already complicated story. How would the invention of the "New Botany," which stressed experimental methods over the descriptive history of life, the German idealist morphological tradition, the rise of agricultural genetics, and the unique problems of preservation and interpretation, encountered in paleobotany affect Bowler's story? Without the inclusion of botany, the book cannot properly make claims for the history of evolutionary biology; late nineteenth century biology minus botany, equals zoology, at least from my reckoning.

But botanists should not be dissuaded from reading and enjoying this book. Both problems I point to could easily have been avoided with a more modest title referring to evolutionary zoology; but this misnomer is no fatal flaw. It may, in fact, invite more scholarship on the subject. - Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, Department of History, University of Florida, Gainesville

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