They say you shouldn’t read your (book/album/movie) reviews, and I suppose they have a point.*
Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider, my book about eponymous scientific names and what they reveal about science and society, has been out long enough to have accumulated half a dozen Amazon reviews. (Incidentally, one easy thing you can do that really helps a small-time author out is to leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Here are some more easy things you can do.) I’m happy that overall, people have enjoyed the book (and I think you’d enjoy it to, so stop reading this post and get to your nearest public library or bookstore). But I’m intrigued by one theme that crops up a few times: the book is “political”.
It really is a theme. Three of the six reviews on US Amazon say good things about the book, but also complain that it it’s not just entertaining but also attempts to make some more serious points.** Consider, for example, this review (the full text):
The stories were good and the variety of taxonomy was great, but it got political at certain points.
And this one:
Very informative & entertaining, could do better by reducing pontificating on social issues to placate the political crowd.
I guess I should plead guilty: Charles Darwin’s Barnacle does indeed “get political at certain points”, and it does touch on (not “pontificate”, honest!) some social issues. But here’s the thing: it’s a book about science, and about the people who do it. We sometimes like to pretend that science is objective and that scientists are dispassionate and objective, but neither thing is true. Science, like any human activity, is touched by human virtues and failings, by human biases and social contexts. Actually, one of the interesting things about species naming is that it lets us see that human side clearly, There’s politics in cell biology, too (as anyone familiar with the saga of HeLa cells, for example knows), but it’s a bit harder to see. So, a book about scientific names “political”? Of course it is.
Now, having said that, I’m sure there are readers who would rather have just the stories: the heroic stories and the funny stories and the poignant ones. And Charles Darwin’s Barnacle is full of those stories: the stories of species named for heroic explorers and for scoundrels and bums; of species named as insults, of species people have named for themselves, of species named for daughters and sons and wives and husbands and illicit lovers***. But I’m unrepentant about also using those stories to look a little more deeply into what makes scientists, and science, human.
Look, even Garfield has a moral sometimes. I think.
© Stephen Heard February 9, 2021
Look, I’ve been nagging you about this book for almost a year. If you haven’t read it, please do – your local public library will almost certainly either borrow it for you or add it to their collection. Or, of course, you could buy a copy! More about the book here, or go straight to the Big Corporate Evil Source 🙂
*^While maybe you shouldn’t read your reviews, I’m very glad I read this one. Dan Garisto’s review for the Literary Review of Canada taught me things – including things about my own book. It’s worth reading even if you have no interest in ever picking up Charles Darwin’s Barnacle.
**^Three of six on US Amazon levy this complaint, but zero of the three on Canadian Amazon. I’d love to overinterpret this pattern as indicating the moral superiority of my homeland, but – wait, maybe I just did. Oops.
***^Ernst Haeckl, maybe it’s too late for this advice, but naming a species after your secret lover, in the public literature, is not the world’s smoothest move.