I had a surprise when I found a book review in Zoo Life, a magazine circulated to fellows of the Zoological Society of London from 1946 until 1957. The review, written for the Spring 1951 issue, was of the first edition of The Life of Vertebrates by J.Z. Young which had been greeted with universal acclaim as ‘a breath of fresh air’. As a result of its new approach generations of students were brought up with it. As I read the review I realised that the reviewer did not like it one little bit—well perhaps just one little bit since its extensive treatment of birds was praised. All the reviewer had to say on J.Z.’s treatment of fish concerned the fishing industry!
This was the first real statement to catch my eye:
The other chapters are less satisfactory. The fact of evolution being a continuous process and that it is embryology—the evolution of the individual--that alone provides a continuous chain of evidence, while the evidence of comparative anatomy or palaeontology consists of isolated fragments—is not mentioned.
The reader in 1951 might have been taken aback by the misuse of the word ‘evolution’ as applied to the ontogeny of an individual organism. But I will not go further into questions of phylogeny and ontogeny in this article.
Even a single palaeontological specimen may be of extraordinary interest; our knowledge that there once existed poisonous serpents of dimensions rivalling—indeed probably exceeding—those of the anaconda or of the largest pythons of the present day rests entirely on a singe tooth dug up in Gran Chaco!
Who was the reviewer? Did he not know that the identification of the tooth of a supposed giant snake by Sir John Graham Kerr in 1927 had been shot down in flames in 1939. The ‘tooth’ was a broken off projection from a conch shell, as I have explained here. Oh dear. But the review ended with:
It is to be regretted that the author has not acquainted himself with the large amount of information now available regarding the life-history of those archaic and still surviving vertebrates Polypterus, Ceratodus, Protopterus and Lepidosiren. The facts exposed by the study of these creatures have important bearings upon the old fashioned ideas on “The Life of Vertebrates”.
And who did the descriptive studies on lungfish? Sir John Graham Kerr. So it was hardly necessary to see that the reviewer, J.G.K., was no other than the man himself: Sir John Graham Kerr.
How utterly embarrassing. I wonder what J.Z. Young did with Kerr’s review. Frame and hang it in a room thought suitable for the purpose? How much it led to misconceptions of then modern zoology in the minds of the largely amateur readers of Zoo Life is anybody’s guess.
Kerr was 82 when he wrote the review and looking back on it 70 years later, he provided a contemporary demonstration quite like no other of why J.Z.’s new textbook was so welcomed as that ‘breath of fresh air’. It also adds weight to the comment by Edward Hindle in his biographical memoir on Kerr: ‘Graham Kerr was a man of very vigorous personality and aroused strong opposition in certain individuals’.
It was Hindle who would, as editor, have solicited the review of The Life of Vertebrates in Zoo Life. He left the Zoological Society of London where he was scientific director in the same year. Previously he had succeeded Kerr in the regius chair of zoology in Glasgow and the two were related by marriage. And it was Hindle who perpetuated the mischief of the hypothetical giant snake when writing Kerr’s biographical memoir; nor did he get to grips with Kerr’s overweening views on the value of morphological embryology in matters of phylogeny.
In all, a rather sad but historically informative snapshot. The take-home message that J.Z. put across is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it:
…every biologist must know as much as possible of the life of the whole organism with which he deals…
Sadly, 70 years on that message and the integrative approach has, to a great extent, been forgotten as biological science has been balkanised into narrow fields of research and thought.