RECENT SCIENCE BOOKS:
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.