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men, microscopes, and living things

11 march 2011

The people at InterLibrary Loan must think I've lost my mind. Baseball picture books and Sicilian mystery novels were bad enough, but now I've taken to ordering half-century old children's popular science texts that frankly look like they should be featured on Awful Library Books.

There is some method to my mindlessness. Men, Microscopes, and Living Things was a Newbery Honor Book in 1956. And I'm interested not just in natural history but in the ways in which popular culture has taught us natural history. So I was actually pretty excited to get this title. Would it prove to be an embarrassment? Would it "hold up" 56 years later?

In fact, can science books ever truly "hold up"? It was part of Mortimer Adler's "Great Books" idea that scientific classics could, and that reading dusty science classics was central to a liberal education. Many educators would argue, however, that the best treatment of science is one that was written yesterday and will be abandoned tomorrow.

Katherine Shippen's title, with its emphasis on Men looking through those microscopes, didn't hold out a lot of hope. There isn't a woman mentioned in the book's 183 pages. I was hoping that at least Mrs. Leeuwenhoek would come in and ask whether Anton wanted peanut butter for his tea, but no such luck.

Despite the obvious implication that men do everything that matters in this world, I look at Men, Microscopes, and Living Things today and notice that a woman wrote the book. That's not a trivial point. Granted, there might be an implication that men do science, women do science education. (Specifically too, women do biology education. In my early-1970s high school, all the biology teachers were women; all the chemistry and physics teachers were men. Such were the stereotypes about the "hardness" and maleness of certain sciences in mid-20th-century America. But biology can be pretty hard, as students in Miss Pflugfelder's fruit-fly genetics lab learned back in my day.)

Aside from its gender troubles, Men, Microscopes, and Living Things is most interesting culturally for its insistence on a now-dated view of science as innocent observation. After chapters with titles like "Pliny's Tall Tales" expose early tradition-bound nonsense, science proper begins with "Vesalius and Harvey Use Their Eyes." We are treated to one of the most durable memes about the rise of the scientific method: get your head out of a book and your rear end out of your mother's basement; observe the world directly, and science will flow forth from you.

Though it's a little more complex than that. The story actually begins with Aristotle:

At the stern of a small boat off the coast of Lesbos on the Aegean Sea, Aristotle leaned far out over the clear, shallow water, looking down at a catfish that was laying its eggs among the reeds. . . . Day after day from the stern of his small boat near the shore Aristotle watched the life of the underwater world unfold . . . Until then no one had watched the ways of fish for the single purpose of trying to understand them. (19, 21)
Some casual surfing led me to Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals (by William F. Perrin, Bernd Wursig, J. G. M. Thewissen) in Google Books, where it is suggested that Aristotle did get out on the water sometimes. But I don't know if that's the truth, or something somebody wants to believe about Aristotle. It's possible he had a graduate student who told him stuff about catfish. (Mmmnnn, catfish.) What was I talking about?

My point is that Men, Microscopes, and Living Things tells a dramatic, tendentious story. Science is about direct observation, often with no hypothesis to guide it. You can see things if you just look, and microscopes are just a better pair of eyes. Inference is not part of the chain. Life is an open book.

I'm burlesquing a little bit. Later in Men, Microscopes, and Living Things, Shippen shows us Darwin theorizing at quite a distance (from things he can't observe directly in any case). But the overall tone of the book is clear: benighted acceptance of tradition leads science astray; looking straight at the material in question leads science aright.

We have a more complicated view of science now, after Thomas Kuhn, and after the popularization of the idea that observing anything changes the thing you observe. But Men, Microscopes, and Living Things is a smart book with a no-nonsense view of biology. It doesn't "teach the controversy." It doesn't make political compromises. (Of course we now believe that a refusal to make political compromises is a deeply political act, but I'm comfortable with simply assuming that and going directly to stuff about plants and animals. Certainly in a book for kids.)

So while you wouldn't necessarily give your daughter Men, Microscopes, and Living Things in the year 2011, you wouldn't worry greatly if she picked it up, either. And it would be interesting to know how many girls have picked it up in the past 56 years, and thereby become biologists.

Shippen, Katherine B. Men, Microscopes, and Living Things. 1955. Illustrated by Anthony Ravielli. New York: Viking, 1966.