The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Danielle Clode

AFEW years ago, a neigh­bour knocked on my door. Had I heard, he asked, about the pan­ther liv­ing in the nearby national park? It was a fa­mil­iar story. The night be­fore he had been driv­ing home from the pub when a large black crea­ture leapt across the road in front of him. On re­vis­it­ing the scene in day­light, he found drop­pings and scratch marks.

I don’t know what had leaped across the road that night, but I did know it was not the same crea­ture re­spon­si­ble for the neat pile of squar­ish drop­pings by the road­side. Those traces, I had to tell my crest­fallen neigh­bour, were un­mis­tak­ably wom­bat.

It was dis­ap­point­ing. I’d like to dis­cover proof of some ex­otic crea­ture liv­ing nearby. And so would a lot of peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to David Wal­dron and Si­mon Townsend, who doc­u­ment the per­va­sive pop­u­lar­ity of big cat folk­lore in Snarls from the Tea-Tree (Ar­ca­dia, 196pp, $34.95). From the Tan­tanoola tiger to the Ot­ways pan­ther, sto­ries of in­ex­pli­ca­ble stock kills, sight­ings, screams and foot­prints are com­mon across Aus­tralia.

Wal­dron puts our will­ing­ness to be­lieve in a large, mys­te­ri­ous preda­tor down to a deep-set Euro­pean fear of the Aus­tralian bush, com­pounded by dam­age from in­tro­duced species and a pro­found dis­trust of Amer­i­can ser­vice­men and trav­el­ling cir­cuses.

But big-cat sto­ries are not unique to Aus­tralia. They are wide­spread in New Zealand, the US and Europe. Danger­ous preda­tors clearly play a big role in the hu­man psy­che: even where they no longer ex­ist, we ev­i­dently still need them.

Townsend sug­gests cryp­to­zo­ol­ogy should be stud­ied with the same dili­gence as any other branch of zool­ogy rather than be­ing seen as dis­rep­utable. But lack of fund­ing, even for the study of known species, may of­fer a more prag­matic ex­pla­na­tion for the lack of sci­en­tific in­ter­est. For all the de­tailed and en­thu­si­as­tic doc­u­men­ta­tion of ev­i­dence, the tan­gi­ble re­sults are dis­ap­point­ingly thin.

Bryan Men­del­son deals with a field of med­i­cal science equally be­set by is­sues of rep­u­ta­tion, al­though less trou­bled by lack of funds. In Your Face: The Hid­den His­tory of Plas­tic Surgery and Why Looks Mat­ter (Hardie Grant, 228pp, $29.95) seeks to rec­tify cos­metic surgery’s sta­tus as a poor cousin to se­ri­ous medicine and place it firmly within the his­tory of re­con­struc­tive medicine, phys­i­cal and emo­tional.

Men­del­son, with the as­sis­tance of his­to­rian Vicki Steggall, is au­thor­i­ta­tive, com­pelling and per­sua­sive. He has im­pec­ca­ble bed­side man­ners, en­ter­tain­ing with his­tor­i­cal anec­dotes, sooth­ing anx­i­eties with ra­tio­nal jus­ti­fi­ca­tions and en­gag­ing with com­pelling case stud­ies.

Be warned. Even if you don’t con­sider your­self a can­di­date for plas­tic surgery, you may change your mind af­ter read­ing this book. At the very least, it en­cour­ages a more com­pas­sion­ate view of plas­tic surgery and its pa­tients. Men­del­son ar­gues it is not what we see in each other’s faces that is im­por­tant, but what we want to see: youth and beauty. And there is am­ple ev­i­dence that we are swayed by beauty, al­though when it comes to ac­tual mea­sure­ment, beauty, like big cats, be­comes sur­pris­ingly hard to define. A sur­geon may well find it eas­ier to change our face than to change our na­ture.

But in a pass­ing ref­er­ence to­wards the end of the book, Men­del­son men­tions that be­tween 80 per cent and 90 per cent of cos­metic surgery pa­tients are women. If phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness and youth are so im­por­tant, why are men not equally vul­ner­a­ble to th­ese de­mands?

Daphne Fair­bairn is well equipped to an­swer this ques­tion. A pro­fes­sor of bi­ol­ogy, she tack­les the is­sue of dif­fer­ences be­tween men and women from a broad per­spec­tive in Odd Cou­ples: Ex­tra­or­di­nary Dif­fer­ences Be­tween the Sexes in the An­i­mal King­dom (Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, 312pp, $44.95 HB). When we dis­cuss gen­der roles, we tend to think only of a nar­row range of species con­form­ing to our pre­con­cep­tions about dom­i­nant men and do­mes­tic women. Fair­bairn ex­plodes th­ese pre­con­cep­tions. Odd Cou­ples doc­u­ments the of­ten star­tling di­ver­sity of sex dif­fer­ences in the an­i­mal king­dom, from tiny par­a­sitic male sead­ev­ils to mas­sive ele­phant seals.

Fair­bairn points out that fe­males are de­fined only as the gen­der with fewer, larger sex cells, while males are the gen­der with smaller, more abun­dant sex cells. Th­ese ba­sic dif­fer­ences tend to have reper­cus­sions down the line for dif­fer­ences in parental care for the gen­der that has al­ready in­vested more in the larger sex cells. But there is noth­ing in­her­ent in which sex adopts this ‘‘ fe­male’’ role nor, Fair­bairn ar­gues, is there any­thing in­her­ent in what it means to be male, or fe­male. The only in­trin­sic bi­o­log­i­cal im­per­a­tive of gen­der roles is that dif­fer­ence is in­evitable. What form that dif­fer­ence takes is open to the full di­ver­sity of evo­lu­tion­ary op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Fair­bairn notes our species’ level of sex­ual dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion is no­tice­able but not ex­tra­or­di­nary. Whether or not hu­man cul­ture is per­ma­nently con­strained by our bi­ol­ogy, how­ever, is a ques­tion raised by both Men­del­son and Fair­bairn’s books, but an­swered by nei­ther.

All three books dis­cussed so far il­lus­trate a di­verse range of ap­proaches to sci­en­tific re­search. Wal­dron and Townsend pro­vide an in­sight into science at the lim­its of re­spectabil­ity. Men­del­son and Steggall doc­u­ment the his­tor­i­cal de­vel­op­ment of a medicine from its ori­gins in an ap­pren­tice­ship model, to the sur­pris­ingly re­cent adop­tion of ev­i­dence­based re­search. Fair­bairn il­lus­trates the main­stream ap­proach to science, with ob­ser­va­tion and hy­poth­e­sis test­ing, con­strained within the bounds of Dar­win’s par­a­digm of sex­ual and nat­u­ral se­lec­tion.

And yet, sur­pris­ingly, none of th­ese books seems to fits com­fort­ably within the con­fines of Alan Chalmers’s clas­sic text What is This Thing Called Science? (UQP, 312pp, $26.95). This aca­demic best­seller, first pub­lished in 1976 and reg­u­larly rewrit­ten and re­vised in four edi­tions since, pro­vides a suc­cinct sum­mary of our un­der­stand­ing of how science works, philo­soph­i­cally, in what self-ev­i­dently has been an un­par­al­leled sys­tem of knowl­edge gen­er­a­tion.

Phi­los­o­phy of science is a fas­ci­nat­ing and vig­or­ously de­bated field in its own right, as Chalmers’s text demon­strates in great de­tail. But it al­ways sur­prises me how lit­tle sci­en­tists them­selves know about how science is meant to work, de­spite their ca­pac­ity to use it to such great ef­fect. I sup­pose there are also many great writ­ers who could not ar­tic­u­late the laws of gram­mar and many great chefs with a limited un­der­stand­ing of food science. Suc­cess­ful prac­tice does not al­ways re­quire the­ory.

I sus­pect few mod­ern sci­en­tists would recog­nise their prac­tice in Chalmers’s book, per­haps be­cause of his fo­cus on 17th-cen­tury physics, at least a cen­tury be­fore the use of ‘‘ science’’ in its mod­ern mean­ing and the ap­pear­ance of science as a pro­fes­sion. By the end of Chalmers’s book I was left with no clearer sense of an an­swer to the ques­tion posed in the ti­tle. Per­haps it is time we used a sci­en­tific, rather than philo­soph­i­cal, method to find the an­swer to what science is. Or per­haps not. Ei­ther way, th­ese books demon­strate that the re­sults of all that re­search make for fas­ci­nat­ing read­ing.

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