This is the first in an occasional series of book reviews which I plan to write for Palanth-l. Each book I review will in some way be related to paleoanthropology, prehistoric archaeology, or related disciplines. If this seems a broad category, remember these are broad subjects. Anthropology itself is a discipline where biology, culture, and even history meet and perhaps clash.
Although these reviews are written with laypeople in mind, that is, with the hope of encouraging an interest in digging deeper into the discipline, it is also my hope that my reviews will stimulate at least a modicum of discussion among professionals also. I also have set up another link in my website where the book reviews will be copied, so that those interested can browse through them there. With this in mind, here, for your perusal, is my first book review.
Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the liveliest disputes ever
John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1998
Some months ago, I proposed to do a series of book reviews dealing with aspects of paleoanthropology and related disciplines, for this e-list. I did not immediately plunge into this task, for little has been written lately, outside of academic journals, which seemed worthy of a review. I did read a book which I thought would be good, if not great reading, but felt vaguely uneasy about reviewing it, without knowing exactly why.
This left me in a quandary, however, for there seemed to be no suitable material to review anywhere on the horizon. However, I make a habit of browsing my local library quite frequently. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I stumbled across Hal Hellman's Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever. It covers a very wide range of scientific subjects and a long span of time. However, even a quick glance through the table of contents showed that the book has a great deal of relevance for some of the topics of discussion which have been brought up on the list.
Although the book is not about paleoanthropology or prehistory, it does contain material which is relevant to these disciplines. It is written so anyone can understand the arguments on both sides. It starts with the argument between Galileo and Pope Urban VIII and ends with the dispute between Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman. Many, if not all of these feuds still have relevance for discourses in modern science: for example, the feud between Galileo and the Pope was one of the earliest controversies between science and religion. Another dispute, the one between Richard Leakey and Donald Johansen, is more central to paleoanthropology, and it centers around definitions of humanity. Since no noe has ever come up with an agreed-upon definition of what it is to be human, the Johansen-Leakey controversies are also extremely relevant.
Other disputes are likely to interest list members as well. For example, the dispute between Marsh and Cope over the "ownership" of dinosaur fossils changed the way the discipline of paleontology was practiced. Accurate documentation was then in its infancy; after the quarrel became public, more care was taken to document finds and there was greater cooperation between various participants in the field. The same methods are common in paleoanthropology.
It is not necessary to read the book in order. I skipped around, starting with chapters that interested me, then explored a little further. However, one can start at the beginning, as well. It would also be a good idea to read the chapter on the controversy over Darwin's theory of evolution. The issues Huxley and Wilberforce debated are with us today. The recent storm over the decision by the Kansas School Board to make the teaching of evolution optional is a good example of this.
Great Feuds in Science is a fine little book, and likely to be overlooked by many people. It would be a pity if this were the case, for it can be extremely useful in many contexts and many levels. High school teachers of science could use it ---- in those states that don't try to ban evolution ---- as could teachers of introductory-level college courses. And lay people outside of schools would also profit by reading the book, for ignorance of science among the public is a vast, seemingly bottomless pit. It's short, easy to read and digest, and well worth the trouble of seeking out.