Time-Lagged Scientific Dialogues


Darwin's Fishes—An Encyclopaedia of Ichthyology, Ecology and Evolution . Pauly, D. 2004 . Cambridge University Press , Cambridge , U.K. 366 pp . $US80.00 (£55) (hardcover) . ISBN 0-521-82777-9 .

The writing of a book is often a rather unpredictable, adventurous process because authors, trapped by the law of unexpected consequences, cannot foresee the offspring. Daniel Pauly's Darwin's Fishes is a good example. The idea for writing this book was born in the late 1980s from the need of a quotation to beautify a special volume (edited by Pauly) on Peruvian anchoveta (Engraulis ringens). Yet, it—the “search” for the quotation—appeared on the shelves in May 2004 as an exhaustive, alphabetized list of entries, containing “everything that Darwin wrote about fishes” in a single chapter (entitled “A to ZZZ”) that makes up Part II, the backbone of Darwin's Fishes. Part I of Darwin's Fishes consists of a short, poetic foreword (by Joseph S. Nelson from the University of Alberta); preface and acknowledgments; a one-page “Conventions Used in the Text,” which provides a useful compass for navigating through chapter “A to ZZZ”; “Darwin and ichthyology,” a short adaptation of Pauly (2002); and last, a concise chapter entitled “Darwin's Fishes: A Dry Run,” which presents various ways to use this book. Part III consists of a series of appendices including “Fish in Spirits of Wine” (Appendix I); “Fish of the Beagle in the BMNH” (Appendix II); and “Checklist of Fish Specimens, Identified by Charles Darwin on the Beagle voyage” (Appendix III). Also found in Darwin's Fishes are an 82-page bibliography and an extensive index, which includes common and scientific names of all fishes (or groups of fishes) mentioned in the book. As the result of a search for a quotation, about 15 years and 366 pages were devoted to this effort. And in truth, isn't it this type of quest that makes scientists tick?

How can one review such a book? I hesitated to write this review of Darwin's Fishes. In fact, Nelson's foreword is a review itself, whereas two reviews have recently appeared in two prestigious journals (Avise 2004; Bell 2004). I decided to follow a rather different track. The late Robert Peters (1991) was of the opinion that ecology resembles, in some aspects, fine arts—notwithstanding the important difference that artists, as opposed to writers of scientific books, make some profit from selling their products. This is because both ecologists and artists search for the “truth” (for the former see, e.g., Kinne 2002). In addition, both art and science “must not reflect, like a mirror, but must magnify, like a lens.” (Inspired from a song of the Greek composer Thanos Mikroutsikos, which was based on Vladimir Maiakovski's [1893–1930] lyrics.) Darwin's Fishes unquestionably magnifies Charles Darwin's fish-related work.

Following Peters' claim, I present an artistic review of the book, which is a technical analysis of the “laundry list” of the 620 encyclopedic entries (but not of the content of the entries, which undoubtedly touches different issues) that make up the backbone of Darwin's Fishes (Table 1). Unexpectedly, the attempt to allocate the different entries into categories was harder than I initially thought, because again, many entry titles touch on different categories. Thus, I am reluctant to assure readers of the reproducibility of my technical analysis. Nonetheless, I decided to take up the challenge because, first, the technical analysis of the entries does not considerably affect the drawing of artistic analogies and, second, because book reviews, being themselves highly opinioned, need not be backed up by hard data (as in arts, one either likes Miro's paintings or not; see Peters 1991).

Table 1.  Allocation of the 620 alphabetized entries that are the backbone of Darwin's Fishes (chapter “A to ZZZ”) into broad categories.
CategoriesNumber of entries
  1. aThis category also includes two entries on Charles Darwin, Darwin's Fishes, the book written by Darwin's granddaughter, as well as other entries related to Darwin (e.g., Beagle, concordance, difficulties, figures, names updated, quote, spelling, words).

  2. bRelated mainly to taxonomy, morphology, structure, function, reproduction, growth, biogeography, ecology, fisheries, and fishing.

  3. cGeneral terms, concepts, definitions related to evolution, ecology, genetics, and philosophy of science.

  4. dOne hundred forty of the 620 entries (22.6%) are short (one line), directing readers to another entry. Most one-line entries refer to fish entries (115 of 140 entries).

The first and last letter of the alphabet (a, z) and the asterisk  3
Charles Darwin's writing or worka 40
Persons directly or indirectly related to Charles Darwin 37
Geographic locations (names) 34
Geology/paleogeology 11
Particular fish species (or groups of species)282
Ichthyologyb 97
Organisms other than fish 54
Other c 62

Darwin's Fishes can be easily described as a theatrical play written by Charles Darwin and Daniel Pauly, adapted for the stage and directed by Pauly. The play has two protagonists, Pauly and Darwin, and 37 guests or extras (from Mr. Fish, captains, midshipmen, and sailors to engineers, artists, and many scientists), and the theatrical scenes are set up in 34 different places (i.e., museums, cities, ports, capes, countries, barren islets, archipelagos, islands, bays, seas). The play is mainly a time-lagged scientific dialog between Pauly and Darwin on Darwin's writings, or work in general, related to fishes and ichthyology and ecology and evolution. Pauly certainly leans toward the philosophical, sociopolitical, and other intriguing issues (e.g., “Spontaneous Generation,”“Social Darwinism,”“Popper, Karl,” and “Creationism”). Thus, monologues on these topics appear in the text. Ichthyologic dialogues, in particular, revolve around many fish species (or groups of species) and/or various ichthyologic issues, such as taxonomy, biogeography, morphology, structure and function, growth, reproduction, fisheries, and conservation. Certain topics (e.g., bioluminescence, electric organs, flying, reproduction, sex ratio, showers of fish) are discussed more than others, and at times the dialogue strays, involving other marine and terrestrial organisms from plankton to whales and from lizards and rodents to birds and hippopotamuses, yet always in relation to fishes. Ah, yes, not exactly always: cuttlefish appear in the geographic entry Abrolhos because of Darwin's spelling, the latter earning an entry itself. (Those interested in spoonerisms [and updates] should check the dedicated forum http://www.fisheries.ubc.ca/members/dpauly.)

Although Darwin's Fishes is neither a drama nor a comedy, it is full of humorous bits, from the first “A” to the last “ZZZ” entry. But this comes as no surprise. Pauly has smuggled Naomi Campbell, yes, the former super model, into a scientific paper (Pauly 1994) and submitted a paper to the Journal of Irreproducible Results, which after being itself trapped in a rather irreproducible editorial process, was finally published in the Annals of Improbable Research (Pauly 1995). (Both papers are cited in Darwin's Fishes.)

Darwin's Fishes was produced by Cambridge University Press, which, in a way, rewards the play itself. And one gets all this for £55 UK ($US 80), the price one usually pays at a central theater in London.

Darwin's Fishes is certainly a pleasant, relaxing, yet intriguing book that can be read in many ways. It is invaluable for those interested in fishes, ichthyology, ecology, evolution, natural history, conservation, philosophy, the history of science and biology, and Darwin. It has many uses (e.g., to copy from Nelson's foreword, as a source of quotations for research papers, public talks, university classes, student essays, and cocktail parties) of which I will highlight only one. Darwin's Fishes is an “opinion book” that covers a vast array of ichthyologic issues (Table 1), but not the quantitative ones. The latter are fully covered in FishBase (Froese & Pauly 2000), the largest scientific electronic encyclopedia on fishes (available online at http://www.fishbase.org), which, by the way, was extensively used for the writing of the book. So there you have it: Darwin's Fishes and FishBase make an excellent pair of ichthyology teaching tools.