In 400 B.C., when Hippocrates wrote a book claiming that epilepsy, the “sacred disease,” was a natural disorder and not a visitation of demons, the science if biology may be said to have begun. Since then, curious naturalists have studied animals and plans, doctors hae sought answers to very practical questions. The science of biology has grown—slowly at first, stopping and starting again, and building in the last century to a crescendo that has not yet reached its peak.
This concise, authoritative book traces the exciting development of the science of life, from the ancient Greeks through the monumental achievement of Charles Darwin to the explosive growth of molecular biology that is resulting in today’s great breakthroughs in genetics and medicine. Written by Isaac Asimov, Associate Professor of Biochemistry at Boston University and author of numerous books on science, this is a highly readable, vivid introduction to the history and concepts of biology.
This book is exactly what its title implies. Most of the material is not new to the reader of The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science or Asimov’s other science books on biology and biochemistry. Of course, although the focus here is to discuss the history of biology and the biological sciences, it is impossible to do so without talking a great deal about their content (as is generally true with histories of science).
The historical structure of the book breaks down about half-way through, as Asimov reaches the 19th century and the various trends in the biological sciences take on a life of their own and need to have their entire story told at once. The net result is a book which is really more a survey of basic biological science with a strong historical tinge.
On the whole, this is not a bad book, but since most of the material in it is covered by other books by Asimov which are generally better, it should probably not be a high priority for the Asimov fan to acquire.
It’s companion piece, however, A Short History of Chemistry, tends to suffer less than its defects and is rated correspondingly higher.