A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology

By JIM ENDERSBY

The incredible intellectual journey from Charles Darwin’s first experiments with orchids and passionflowers — starting in 1854 as he sought to unriddle the elements of heredity — to the patenting of the world first transgenic animal, OncoMouse, in 1988, is an intense and exciting voyage of discovery whose fascinating zigzags, cul-de-sacs, and milestones have seldom been charted in a more entertaining fashion than in Jim Endersby’s A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology. Endersby’s unique narrative hook is to organize his chapters around some previously unsung “heroes”: the various humble plants, animals and microbes that have been the focus of innumerable scientific investigations into the secrets of genetics, and which have generously, although sometimes grudgingly, yielded their secrets to a small army of master, journeyman, and apprentice researchers, all of whom emerge as vivid personalities through his lucid prose. This authorial conceit provides a sturdy armature on which to affix everything from biography to cultural analysis to literary exegesis to sociopolitical musings, but Endersby never allows his hook to interfere with a good anecdote or a brilliant schematic of the way science and biology really work. Combining the same taste for eccentrics and oddities associated with historian of magic Ricky Jay with the rationalist, layman-favoring clarity of biologist Stephen Jay Gould, Endersby does honor to the quagga, the zebrafish, the mouse-ear cress, the fruit fly, and a handful of other species. Like James Burke in his show Connections, Endersby startles with his account of historical serendipity that ultimately proves almost magically inevitable. -