Book ReviewsSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License. Please contact email@example.com to use this work in a way not covered by the license. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
Pringle, Peter. 2008. The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov: The Story of Stalin’s Persecution of One of the Great Scientists of the Twentieth Century. New York. Simon & Schuster. 370 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-6498-3. $26.00. Hardbound.
In this captivating biography of the Russian plant geneticist/botanist Nikolai Vavilov, Pringle tells the story of how one of the twentieth centuries greatest botanists who dreamed of feeding the world died of starvation. Though he worked for numerous years for the Russian state, Vavilov was persecuted, incarcerated, interrogated and very likely tortured by Stalin’s communist regime for his unwavering confidence in Mendelian ge- netics. Vavilov, as portrayed by Pringle, was a passionate man full of energy, insatiable cu- riosity and unrelenting drive. He was first and foremost a scientist, though Pringle also devotes time to discussing Vavilov’s family life. And though many of the charges brought against Vavilov by the KGB were of subterfuge and disloyalty to the motherland, Pringle works throughout the biography to show Vavilov as the incomparable patriot he is re- vealed to be in numerous personal journals, letters, interviews and records. Vavilov even tried to convince American contemporaries working at the time with T. H. Morgan to come to Russia and join him in his botanical cross breeding experiments. Of those who accepted Vavilov’s invitation, only a few lived through the closing of Stalin’s fist around scientists he deemed to be too theoretical. Fueled in part by the common suspicion of the time that academics, particularly those well born, did not have the interests of the common people at heart, the U.S.S.R eventu- ally stalled biological advancement in the motherland by fully backing the work of the uneducated would-be scientist, Forim Lysenko. Ironically, Vavilov played a key part in the recognition of Lysenko’s work on vernalization. For many years, Lysenko worked on one of Vavilov’s experimental breeding stations. Throughout Lysenko’s career, Vavilov repeatedly extended the inexperienced Lysenko invitations to join him at international conferences on genetics and worked to give him opportunities to expand his knowledge base and improve as a scientist. However, Lysenko preferred a Lamarckian theory of ge- netics and would not be moved, a preference ultimately shared by Stalin himself. It is not surprising, therefore, after the forth of multiple famines hit Russia throughout the early 1900’s, Stalin turned to Lysenko instead of Vavilov for a plan to rapidly improve Russian agriculture. Interestingly, the famines were caused in part by environmental factors, but greatly exacerbated by Stalin’s grain collectivization program. Lysenko, a formidable opportunist, worked at every turn to amass his own power and undermine Vavilov’s own position. Pringle discusses Vavilov’s reluctance to engage Ly- senko in open conflict and confront his erroneous theory of inheritance and bad science. By the time Vavilov grasped the gravity of the situation, it was too late. It is interesting that a man so perceptive with plants was so blind to the darker side of people. Even throughout the times of persecution, Pringle paints a picture of a painfully optimistic Vavilov. He con- stantly wrote encouragement to his experimental institutes around Russia, maintained con- tact with his international colleagues and believed that the truth of science would triumph. None-the-less, Pringle writes, a different truth eventually dawned on the horizon: Vavilov would be arrested. In an address to his workers at the Leningrad Institute, he stated, “We will go into the pyre, we shall burn, but we shall not retreat from our convictions.” Ar-
rested August 6, 1940 on the fictitious charges of sabotage of Soviet Agriculture and spy- ing for foreign countries, particularly Britain, Vavilov was brutally interrogated. Initially sentenced to be shot on July 9, 1941, his sentence was later commuted to twenty years in labor camps. Neither sentence carried; Vavilov was found dead on January 26, 1943. The jail doctors pronounced the cause of death to be dystrophy from prolonged malnutrition. Despite his unnecessarily early death, Vavilov made phenomenal advances in Russian agriculture. He worked tirelessly to keep himself and his workers abreast of and contribut- ing to international agrarian developments. On each of his multiple and varied excursions to locate “hot spots” of plant biodiversity and species origins, He would bring back fruits, vegetables, and hoards of seeds and grains common to other continents but not yet seen in Russia. Each specimen was saved in his ever-expanding seed library and many were di- rectly used in agricultural experiments at field stations throughout Russia. His now famous and nearly globally inclusive collection of seeds, arguably one the first gene seed banks in the world, even managed to survive World War II. Pringle writes of workers in the Insti- tute of Leningrad starving to death in their desks as they maintained vigil over the collec- tion. Vavilov, as Pringle reveals, was indeed a man of contagious vision. In constantly searching for new varieties of existing crops, he dreamed of “directing the evolution of cultivated plants and domestic animals according to our will,” seeing his mission as one for all humanity. Although the director of multiple institutes over the span of his life, Vavilov never sought administrative promotion, preferring instead to be in the laboratory or the field performing genetic experiments on his preciously obtained vari- eties. None-the-less, his formidable education from the Petrovskaya Agricultural Insti- tute, post-graduate studies and internships in Russia, Britain, France and Germany, and publically recognizable genius at one point landed him eighteen administrative posts. He served a decade as the director of the Institute of Genetics of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, during which time period he also functioned as the vice president of the 6th In- ternational Congress of Genetics in Ithaca, New York. In the time since Vavilov’s death, Russia has recanted. Vavilov was rehabilitated in 1955. Thirty-three years later the coun- try celebrated the centenary of his birth. Russian citizens today proudly recognize Vavilov as one of their foremost scientists. The Russian Government posthumously granted Vav- ilov an honorary doctorate and presented it to his second son, Yuri, on November 27, 2007 at a special symposium honoring the 120th anniversary of Vavilov’s birth at the Russian State Agrarian University in Moscow. As Pringle mentions, it is starkly ironic that a man who dreamt of feeding the world would die of starvation. One cannot help but wonder how the world would be different had Vavilov lived. He carried out specimen collecting tours of extensive breadth on five continents to better understand and hopefully harness the genetic variability globally pre- sent in wild and cultivated plants. Over his lifetime, Vavilov created a botanical library of over 250,000 specimens and published prolifically. Yet even today, his dream of feeding the world remains unrealized.
——Brianna Payne, Graduate Student, Biology Department Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI 49104-0410 firstname.lastname@example.org
Quammen, D. 2008. On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition. Sterling Pub- lishing Company, 387 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 100016, 544 pages. ISBN 1402756399 $35.00.
Charles Darwin is arguably the most well known scientist who has ever lived. The views he developed on his fateful trip around the world would change the face of biology for-
ever. He spent years after his voyage collecting evidence until he was forced to publish his findings more than 23 years after his return. His book, titled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was in instant success and was followed by many further editions. The interest in Darwin and his work continues to this day. Many who are interested in biology have read at least part of The Origin of Species. However, this edition is different than many. In contrast to the many small paperback versions available, this edition is large (9?10 inches) and hardbound with a nicely illustrated dust jacket. The resulting de- crease in portability is more than made up for by the beautiful illustrations on almost every page. They portray the diversity Darwin saw, the species he observed and snapshots of his life. Some of the illustrations were made on the voyage of the Beagle, while others are from Darwin’s later publication The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. In ad- dition to the illustrations, many related snippets were included from Darwin’s voyage diary as well as other publications on his life. Although the text was taken directly from Darwin’s Origin of Species, the liberal sprinkling of additional text and pictures greatly enhances the reading experience. Anyone interested in biology will find this book fascinating, whether you have previ- ously read The Origin of Species or not. The illustrations and glimpses into Darwin’s life add further depth and meaning to his exploration of natural selection and the processes of change. This book would be an excellent addition to any biological library.
——Jonathan Cowles, Graduate Student Biology Department, Andrews University Berrien Springs, MI 49104-0410 E-mail: email@example.com
Theodoropoulos, D. I. 2003. Invasion Biology: A Critique of a Pseudoscience. Avvar Books, Blythe, CA 92225. 236 pp. ISBN 0-9708504-1-7, paperback $14.50.
Our increasing awareness of just how dramatically humans can alter ecological systems has spawned new subdisciplines of biology. I doubt that any of us today would, if given a second chance, exterminate the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius): the idea of conservation biology is too prominent in our minds. We wish to preserve the ecosystems we observe around us. Invasion biology has sprung from that same mindset: we’ve seen the damage we inflict when we transport species from a distant geographic locality and introduce them to our native flora and fauna. Examples in our area include the house spar- row (Passer domesticus), brought from Europe and now competing with our beloved eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), reedgrass (Phragmites australis subsp. australis) origi- nally from Europe and now abundant in our marshes, and the zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha), which has become extremely prevalent in the Great Lakes. But David Theodoropoulos has a different idea. In his controversial book Invasion Bi- ology, he argues that “invasive species” are actually not a threat to native wildlife; instead of being harmful, “alien” species typically integrate quickly into their new ecosystem, in- duce natives to evolve more quickly, and increase diversity in the areas into which they spread. The first section, which is roughly half of the book, deals with the science behind this issue. In rapid-fire succession Theodoropoulos cites many examples of species which in- vasion biologists claim are demonstrably harmful to native wildlife, but which he claims are completely innocuous. “Non-natives” aren’t the problem, he says; anthropogenic de- struction of ecosystems is—and in fact, non-natives typically show up in areas disturbed
by humans. Dispersal of exotics is nothing to be afraid of, he reiterates—it happens natu- rally all the time. Theodoropoulos devotes the second half of his book to a discussion of the psychology of invasion biology. He does not stop at refuting the scientific claims of “anti-alien” sci- entists: invasion biology is a pseudoscience, he says, and appears to be born of some basic human xenophobia. In quick succession the author lists several analogous principles or behaviors in both invasion biology and Nazism. Theodoropoulos attributes paranoia, pro- paganda, a money connection with pesticide companies, and a hateful attitude towards anything “foreign” to invasion biologists. In the last and smallest section of Invasion Biology the author brings his arguments to a conclusion, and directs the reader to what he thinks is the real crisis: bias against “alien” species will hamper our ability to protect the planet’s biodiversity. If a particular plant is rare, feel free to cultivate it in your backyard or greenhouse! says Theodoropoulos. By keeping as much diversity as possible spread throughout the planet, species are much less likely to go completely extinct. He cites several examples where the only members of a species left in existence are in a zoological park or cultivation—Gladiolus citrinus, Franklinia alatahama, and Tecophilia cyanocrocus for example. There are no theoretical limits to diversity, he argues, so we should try to pack as many species as possible in ap- propriate environments; it doesn’t matter whether they are “native” or “alien”. Further- more, the language we use to describe exotics—aggressive, invasive, alien, biological pollution—should be changed in order to eliminate bias and reflect a new understanding of the role of “non-natives”. Anthropogenic dispersal is a critical duty not to be neglected, not a matter for unscientific fear or regulation by bureaucracy. This reviewer feels that Theodoropoulos’ argument would have been much better made and received had he simply omitted the second section of his book, and left that can of worms to open at a later date if he so desired. I am not convinced that yanking the gar- lic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) from my woods is tantamount to Ku Klux Klan activities. That said, I found this book to be highly intriguing. Theodoropoulos raises questions wor- thy of our attention: What exactly does “invasive” mean? How exactly does anthro- pogenic disturbance affect ecosystems? Are there some pros to having certain exotic species around? Have we overreacted and invoked too much red tape? Are the recent studies indicating that zebra mussels may actually be improving water quality of our Great Lakes correct? Will the house sparrows disappear and leave the bluebirds to live their lives, if the agricultural disturbance ceases? How exactly do we carry out our role as stewards on this solitarily verdant planet?
——Libby Megna Department of Biology Andrews University Berrien Springs, MI 49104 firstname.lastname@example.org