22 March 2010

On the slow progress of biology

I am still reading F.J. Cole's History of Comparative Anatomy from Aristotle to the Eighteenth Century. Our subject now is the Dutch anatomist Jan Swammerdam whose magnum opus Biblia Naturae was 1st published in 1738, 58 years after Swammerdam died. Nevertheless, Cole writes that when the book came out it was "not yet out of date".

In the 17th and the 18th centuries the progress of science was much slower than it is now. But even then, certain key discoveries were made and published by different scientists independently and within a few years of each other. Cole mentions several examples. For example, the technique of injecting colored liquids or waxes into veins to make them more visible was apparently discovered and rediscovered several times between 1651 and 1666 by Harvey, Swammerdam and others. So there was indeed competition between the scientists and rapid progress in some areas of science. On the other hand, microanatomy of animals—the main subject of Swammerdam's book—wasn't practiced by many and Swammerdam's skills at it were apparently difficult to match even decades after his death. Thus, his findings were still fresh when they were published belatedly.

Even now, in our age of rapid progress in many areas of science, certain fields of biology still rely on decades old publications. That is because we know very little about the life histories, behaviors and anatomies of most of the hundreds of thousands of species that are out there. In a paper I just published on the reproductive biology of the snail Oxyloma retusum, the oldest reference I cite is from 1935; that is from 75 years ago. Despite certainly not being up to par with today's standards, it is still a relevant publication.

In short, it is not surprising to me that the much delayed publication of Swammerdam's Biblia Naturae in the 18th century had not made it obsolete. The descriptive biology will always return to the old masters even when they are only good for knocking down.

3 comments:

Deniz Bevan said...

What about between 1490 and 1500? Anything really significant then?

AYDIN ÖRSTAN said...

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) comes to mind & he was about it.

Deniz Bevan said...

Rats! I was hoping you might have known about someone obscure...