Biology's rebels.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Hammack, Steve
Pub Date: 04/01/2009
Publication: Name: The American Biology Teacher Publisher: National Association of Biology Teachers Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 National Association of Biology Teachers ISSN: 0002-7685
Issue: Date: April, 2009 Source Volume: 71 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: Rebels, Mavericks, and Heretics in Biology (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Harman, Oren; Dietrich, Michael
Accession Number: 246348877
Full Text: Rebels, Mavericks, and Heretics in Biology. Edited with an Introduction by Oren Harman and Michael Dietrich. 2008. Yale University Press. (ISBN: 9780300116397). 416 pp. Hardcover. $40.00.


Before you read this review, take a moment to jot down the names of a half dozen biologists you consider to be rebels, mavericks, or heretics in biology, and think why you would classify them as such. It would be illuminating and fun to see if any of the 19 individuals featured in Rebels, Mavericks, and Heretics in Biology are mentioned on your list.

In this innovative and original book, Oren Harman and Michael Dietrich commissioned and edited essays that highlight 19 iconoclastic individuals from the past 150 years who have challenged orthodox biological thinking. By selecting individuals who have dissented in various areas of biology, Harman and Dietrich hope to shed light on how the iconoclast operates in science. The selection of individuals runs the gamut from the famous, Alfred Wallace, to the obscure, Leon Croizat, and is organized roughly in chronological order.

Each chapter begins with a brief overview of one to three pages that sets the rebel's work within its historical context. This context setting can be seen clearly in the opening to the chapter on Carl Woese: "At a time when microbiologists declared that a phylogenetic classification of bacteria was impossible, Woese ... proposed a fundamentally new conception of the evolution of life on Earth in direct opposition to the canonical eukaryote-prokaryote dichotomy." The setting is followed by a biographical sketch highlighting the scientist's significant work and the challenges faced when opposing the dominant paradigm that existed at the time.

The individual chapters are written by experts in their fields and are excellent in their content. College professors or high school biology teachers are the intended audience, not their students or the general public. Every essay is packed full of illuminating insights that are sure to increase appreciation for the work of each scientist, and perhaps provide some fascinating stories to help spice up one's lectures.

While reading these essays, one is reminded that science has its own sociopolitical structure that at times makes scientific progress challenging, and that it takes dogged determination, creativity, and self-confidence to push thinking into new areas. This is a good message to remind our students, particularly those who might someday become scientists.

The book's strengths are its expert writing, revealing anecdotes, and refreshing examination of how science really operates, as well as the challenges scientists face when their ideas run counter to scientific orthodoxy. Its biggest weakness is a lack of overall unity. After reading the 19 essays, it is clear there are many different ways of rebelling but Harman and Dietrich are unable to organize these forms of rebellion in a systematic manner. In an introductory essay, the editors attempt to find a unifying theme for rebelliousness but what emerges from their analysis is what they call their "Tolstoyan thesis: although all conventional practitioners in the life science may be said to be conventional in the same way, all rebels seem to rebel in their own particular fashion."

Some may be disappointed with the selection of rebels. Only two of the 19 individuals are women-certainly Lynn Margulis merits a place in this collection. Although much ink has been spilt over his controversial approach to science, it was surprising to not read about the most famous living rebel in biology today, Craig Venter.

Regardless of these minor weaknesses, there is much to he learned from this wonderful book. The chapters can be read as stand-alone essays or in toto as a collection of essays demonstrating the diversity of unconventional thinkers in science over the past 150 years. Rebels have been necessary for the progress of science; this book reminds us of this very important truth..

Steve Hammack

AP Biology Teacher

Los Gatos High School

Los Gatos, CA

shammack@lghs, net
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