Micscape Book Review
by Dale Jeffrey, Windsor, Ontario, Canada
Like many of you I suppose, I started my interest in the natural world via amateur ornithology, or bird-watching. Aside from a pair of binoculars and a notebook, the handiest item at the birder’s disposal is the field guide, and since the days of John James Audubon’s Birds of North America, and followed by countless other and more wide ranging guidebooks, North American birders have had the luxury of a portable identification kit, easily fitting in a satchel or rain jacket. I am certain that the European and Eurasian markets are also filled with these useful tools. In a similar vein, guides are available for amateur botanists, those with special aquatic interests, insects, and even mushrooms. Still, for the amateur microbiologist, no such guide is available. This, obviously, is because the sheer numbers of microbes thus far identified exceed 1 million separate species, and unless one has an enormous desk, such a volume or set of volumes would be an impossibility to both produce and purchase. That leaves us with a problem, especially as dedicated amateurs. In the case of some species, Rotifera or Tardigrada come to mind, one has to seek out highly specialized books and research papers which are not readily accessible to the amateur. Web sites like this one are exceedingly helpful, as are public libraries and other Internet resources, but the fact remains that our problem is the lack of materials to ensure that we have, indeed, correctly identified the species under consideration. The answer, according to author Colin Tudge, in his pretentiously named volume entitled The Variety of Life: A survey and a celebration of all of the creatures that have ever lived (Oxford University Press, 2000) lies in taxonomy and phylogeny and systematics. In this single volume hardback edition, Tudge argues for a return to good old fashioned taxonomy, a systematic portrayal of life forms as a large tree with many branches and twigs, taking us from the earliest decades of our planet’s biological history, and on up to the present.
The book is divided into three parts. The first, entitled The Craft and Science of Classification, is an excellent introduction for the amateur seeking to understand how current thinking on taxonomy, on phylogeny, and on systematics - a part of evolutionary science that attempts to name, classify, and group organisms on the basis of their evolutionary relation, can positively help us as we work with our microscopes and specimens. I found this section alone worth the price of the book, and I suspect that even a university educated biologist would find it a useful reminder.
The second section, taking us to the meat of the matter, is called A Survey of All Living Creatures, and here we are provided with the trees of life, divided into 25 separate sections, commencing with the Bacteria, Archaea, and Eucharya and taking us all the way to us. Each of these sections contains useful graphics, and excellent decriptions, written for the educated lay person.
The final section, an epilogue, is a reflection, and concerns itself with the present and future state of ecology, called Saving What Is Left. It is an ecologists call to arms, and is as valid today as when it was first penned in 2000.
Is it a field guide? No, but it helps the process of general classification immensely, and so I would, without hesitation, refer it to my fellow microscopists who are interested in biodiversity on our little and fragile planet Earth.
As Tudge writes, “The quest to establish phylogeny is an attempt to reconstruct history, and in this there can be no royal road to truth. But by framing rules and principles we can certainly improve on modern guesswork”. He goes on, “My specific aim is to help to restore the art, craft, and, indeed the modern sense of taxonomy, or systematics, back to the centre of biological teaching and thinking, which is where it ought to be...my second broad aim is simply to point out that nature is wonderful, and that much of the wonder lies in its variety. Without classification, the variety is simply bewildering, and bewilderment gets in the way of thought.”
I agree whole-heartedly.
All comments to the author Dale Jeffrey are welcomed.
Microscopy UK Front
Published in the July 2015 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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