Thursday 20 January 2011

Treasures In Old Books

Several years ago, while at Washington University in St Louis, I headed to the Biology department library to return some books. As many libraries are wont to do, they were chucking out old copies of books, and looking through the pile I managed to score a few classic texts, including Lynn Margulis' "Early Life". Astoundingly, tucked inside, was a photocopy of a letter sent to Lynn on 2 June 1982 (the letter is typewritten, and the photocopy seems to have been made not long after and has a handwritten note by Lynn in the top corner).

The letter reads:
Dear Lynn,

I have now read Early Life with pleasure and education.

It is interesting that this started out as one of the proposed Scientific American books envisioned by Gerard Piel and originally under the supervision and editorship of Edward Immergut. I, too, started a book for that series. As you of course know, Piel sacked Immergut. He then proposed to do the editing himself, found he couldn't do it, and then released or reassigned those under way. Yours went off to Science Books International, a firm I do not know. Mine went to W.H. Freeman & Co., which no longer has any connection with Bill Freeman, a geologist and old friend of mine, but is an affiliate of Scientific American. (It is not 100% clear which one owns the other, but they are essentially the same outfit, one publishing magazines and the other books.) My book for them is [title removed for reasons which shall become apparent] and is scheduled for November, 1982.

Gerry Piel's original idea was to have books on branches of science written by specialists for other scientists not specialized in the same field. Your book does a beautiful job of that sort, although it will in some spots be rather slow reading for a scientist who is not specifically a biochemist.

I will mention just a couple of quite minor points, if only to show you that I have read your book word for word. For example on p. 72 you give 3.5 billion years as the age of the Warrawoona fossils but in a footnote recommend the utmost caution because the age might only be 70 million years. If that is a possibility I do think we should skip the Warrawoona things until they are better tied down. Of course there were similar prokaryotes 70 million years ago (as there are today) but at that time there were also mammals and other very advanced eukaryotes.

Another point even more trivial is that on p. 9 you say that "dogs, cows, giraffes, horses, and even human beings" all have five fingers or toes on each limb. Human beings do, but none of the others you name do. (Their ancestors did, but that isn't what you say.)

As you may recall, I was at first rather dubious about your theory of the origins of organelles from symbionts. You have now convinced me that this has often been correct. Some of your suggestions do still seem somewhat dubious, but you also leave room for some doubts.

Congratulations on a fine book.
Now, who do you think wrote that letter? I removed the title of the book from the letter to try and get some more interesting guesses out of you (since a straightforward google search would have thrown up the author immediately). Nothing but bragging rights for you, but give it a go. I'm looking forward to reading your guesses.

I will be covering endosymbiosis with my AS biologists next week, so I shall be re-reading "Early Life" again over the weekend, I think.


  1. "Fossils and The History of Early Life" by George Gaylord Simpson was published in June of 1983 as part of a SciAm series by W.H. Freeman. (As best I can tell, in Nov. 1982, W.H. Freeman published only 2 titles, one being some kind of cold war strategic analysis, and the other being a set of transparancy slides to accompany a math text)

    Slightly spoiling the Simpson hypothesis, there was a "The Fossil Record and Evolution: Readings from Scientific American" released in July of 1982 by WHF. That one was edited by Leo F. Laporte. But books seem to get delayed rather than pushed forward, so I'd guess it was Simpson.

  2. Got it in one (presumably Scott or Zach?) - well done! Shame no one else played along - maybe it was too easy...

  3. Not this Scott. (I am ... so very behind in my blog reading--I'm trying to get caught up, but 18 hour days are subverting my ability to do this.)

    I'd have guessed incorrectly anyway. But this is a great story. A fair number of the books on my shelves are library discards; though nothing approaches the coolness of finding a neat bit of ephemera like you did.


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