Alright I thought I would spend some time discussing books I love or those that have had a lasting effect on me. At least initially, these books will be about biological science, including the history of science, philosophy of science. However, I will also include other books that have had an intellectual effect on me. So you won't hear about Crichton's Jurassic Park, only impact was some spectacular special effects in the movie.
The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity Evolution and Inheritance. Ernst Mayr.
Today's installment is a rather thick book by the late great Ernst Mayr. This epic book is really the history of biology. It is broken up into 4 parts, the first is really a 131 page introduction in which Dr. Mayr discusses the how he approaches writing the history of science, discusses the scientific method and how the scientific method impacts on biology, and discusses the brief intellectual history of biology. This latter issue is recurrent in the other 3 parts, so its helpful to lay out the intellectual history and contributors early in broad strokes.
The second section discusses Diversity, although it is truly a discussion of the history of taxonomy and the species concept. Ultimately this is a mystery with no resolution as the species concept is still a moving target. The criteria used to define a mammalian species is not sufficient to define a bacterial species. Further, what a molecular biologist may define as a species, an ecologist may defnie as multiple species. This is not to suggest the species concept is not useful, simply that it is extremely complex.
The third section discusses Evolution. This section should be read by all creationists as the history of evolutionary thought significantly predates Darwin and many of the foundations were worked out by Christian "scientists" working to demonstrate the existance of their god. The growth of evolutionary thought and its culmination with molecular biology are discussed as the impact of evolution in speciation.
The final section discusses Variation and Its Inheritance. Here Dr. Mayr describes early thoughts on inheritance, Mendelian genetics, and the identification of DNA as the source of variation and inheritance. Again this is from a historical perspective, and was the section I was least impressed with. My diminished enthusiasm had more to do with this being an area I was already quite familiar unlike the earlier sections.
Word of Warning....The is not an exciting read and my addition comes in at >990 pages. I do not suggest you read it before bed (I did, but admittedly I am off.) It is clear amd well-written, including many notes and references for each section. These are real references from original works published in the 1700, 1800, and 1900s. This always lends a bit of intellectual honesty in my opinion. Also, I expect it was exceedingly difficult to write. The sections do not lend themselves to be separate entities as there is much overlap between them and these areas are heavily intertwined.
The important thing is that these areas are intertwined with all areas of biology and having knowledge of these areas is important to have a strong appreciation of the other areas. Myself, I never took an evolutionary biology course in college, although I was a Biochemistry major and obtained my PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology. (I am not saying we never discussed evolution, simply that I never took it as an entire course.) This, I think is a mistake, and maybe the requirements have changed since I was a student (doubt it), however understanding evolution, species, variation are central to all areas of biology. I spend a good chunk of my time bashing genes for a living. Do these areas really help me intellectually? Absolutely. Understanding evolution allows me to compare my work with that of other organisms to either generate novel hypotheses or suggest explanations to distinct results. Variation? Well, my organism is found in people all over the planet, do they all behave the same? are the genes Im interested in doing the exact same thing at the exact same time in all of these isolates? (Maybe, but is alcohol dehydrogenase expressed the same in all people on the planet?) What about species? Interesting question, how is my organism classified as a species? It is an asexual (as far as we know) organism, so there is no meiotic recombination that we know of. It can scramble its chromosomes and handle aneuploidies (a different number of copies of its chromosomes from the "wild-type") quie well. My point is, knowing about these issues does not hurt my research and makes me a better scientist because I can think about these issues in relation to my work.
Finally, Dr. Mayr wanted to write a second compendium on the area of molecular biology. Sadly, this never was completed. However, another of my favorite books The Eighth Day of Creation by Hoarce Freeland Judson does just that, but we will leave that until next time.
(BTW alcohol dehydrogenase is expressed less in many people of Asian decent hence their ability to enjoy Friday nights a lot more cheaply than I can. Another word of warning, never hang out with a friend that overexpresses alcohol dehydrogenase unless you have nothing to do the next day.)