Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Death of a Rat

Death of a Rat
William D Stansfield
Amherst (NY): Prometheus Books, 2000. 360 pages.
Reviewed by
Michael Zimmerman, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh
In his Death of a Rat, William D Stansfield, an emeritus professor of biology at California Polytechnic State University, takes us on a grand tour of science, focusing mostly on the ethical, political, and sociological considerations that are all too often overlooked by others. While doing so, he provides a glimpse into the process of scientific discovery as well as into a number of the personalities who have been responsible for some of our greatest advances and some of our most embarrassing moments.

In his tour, Stansfield ranges widely, presenting chapters on such topics as the discovery of the structure of DNA, the dance-language theory of honeybees, self-deception and outright fraud in scientific investigations, and the role of luck and serendipity in the discovery process. As with most whirlwind tours, there is only time to examine the highlights; just when it might make sense to begin to look behind the scenes, the group moves on to view the next masterpiece. While frustrating to readers who have visited some of these topics on their own, Stansfield's strategy is fully appropriate for the first-time visitor to the land of science. Indeed, many such visitors might well become captivated enough that they will want to return on their own to delve more deeply.

Stansfield selects his topics as much for the morals they furnish as for their scientific importance. His detailed account of Watson and Crick's discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA is a paean to the value of scientific teamwork. Although this particular interlude nicely exemplifies the competitive nature of science as well, it is clear that by working together and using the research of others, Watson and Crick were able to discover the structure of DNA sooner than would have been possible had they been working separately. As a stop on the tour for the uninitiated, this is powerful stuff. Unfortunately, since virtually the only source Stansfield uses is Watson's classic 1968 book The Double Helix (although he cites the 1980 edition), most scientifically literate readers will not find anything new.

Similarly, in his chapter discussing the impact that politics can have on science, Stansfield makes several wonderful choices in deciding to feature three exemplary situations: Galileo's run-in with the Church; TD Lysenko's control of Russian genetics and the subsequent demise of Russian agriculture; and the growth of 20th-century "creation science". In each case, the general structure of the argument is presented, the importance of keeping scientific inquiry free from political control is articulated, and the appetite of the lay reader is whetted before Stansfield moves his tour party on to focus on the next issue worthy of consideration. Again, for those who have made some version of this trip before, because of his limited array of sources, there is not much fresh information or insight. The Galileo material is largely a précis of Owen Gingerich's 1982 Scientific American article, the Lysenko work a summary of Zhores Medvedev's wonderful 1971 book The Rise and Fall of TD Lysenko, and the critique of creationism a far too brief rehash of Tim Berra's 1990 book Evolution and the Myth of Creationism.

A discussion of fraud and the self-correcting nature of science wisely touches on Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer's early-20th-century "documentation" of some of Lamarck's ideas about the inheritance of acquired characteristics as well as on the contemporaneous Piltdown hoax in England. Because all of the Kammerer material comes from Arthur Koestler's provocative 1971 book, The Case of the Midwife Toad, and the Piltdown information is drawn solely from Ronald Miller's 1972 book The Piltdown Men and a chapter in Stephen Jay Gould's 1980 The Panda's Thumb, those well-versed in the genre will find nothing they have not previously encountered.

Minor tour stops include a recap of the cold fusion affair, summaries of the discovery of the causes of yellow fever, scurvy, and HIV, a sketch of the discovery of penicillin, and a synopsis of the claims of homeopathy, among many others. All are entertaining and informative but none is particularly insightful.

As with most tour books, Death of a Rat provides an intelligent, if fairly superficial, overview of what can be expected to be seen. If it serves to attract tourists to the attractions described, it should be viewed as a success, and the fact that it is not a book for the more seasoned traveler should not be held against it.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.