Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum – Richard Fortey

I suppose it’s inevitable to compare Dry Storeroom to Douglas Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic, though Fortey doesn’t come out ahead in the competition. On the other hand, Fortey’s Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth was such a fine book that Dry Storeroom had every reason to be just as engaging. It isn’t, though, and I’m still not entirely sure why.

Perhaps it is because Fortey focuses almost exclusively on the scientists who work “behind the scenes” in his museum (or who worked there—quite a few of them are dead); and the recounting of old gossip and long-forgotten eccentricities and peccadilloes isn’t nearly as intriguing as Fortey perhaps intended it to be. Throughout, I wanted to hear more about the science itself, about the specimens, about (for crying out loud) trilobites, which are Fortey’s area of specialty. Though he does a decent job of explaining the basics of taxonomy and nomenclature, including a discussion of the conceptual upheaval of the entire endeavor that has been occasioned by our modern capacity to trace species relationships through DNA analysis, all of it feels a tad superficial.

Fortey mentions, for example, the fact that modern science has challenged the very concept of “species,” but doesn’t ever quite arrive at the point. Meanwhile, other than alluding to the classic “lumpers vs. splitters” feud, he doesn’t say much of anything about what this all means for paleontologists, who are forced to erect and defend species on the basis of entirely external characteristics (given that DNA is unavailable). In light of Fortey’s interesting discussion of the complete revolution that took place in the understanding of the taxonomy of just one species of common marine snail, Littorina, following genetic analysis, or the fact that some workers claim that as few as 40% of living species of Conus are valid, one wonders what hope there might be for fossil Conus (to take one example), which is a morass if ever there was one—and that’s just one gastropod in a single, enormous phylum.

I assume that Fortey and his publisher made their editorial decisions deliberately to avoid overwhelming the scientifically handicapped, but I couldn’t help but feel that the dumbing-down sometimes went too far. Fortey takes several occasions to comment on the virtual extinction of the grand scientific enterprises that gave birth to our understanding of the systematics of living things, but he’s more wistful than angry about the way changing funding priorities and budget-slashing at universities and museums have made a victim of science. Anger would have been more than justified. Overall, Dry Storeroom is too long on anecdote and too short on analysis of the hard issues, and “popular” begins to edge over into the territory of the run-of-the-mill. It’s a privilege to read Fortey; I very much suspect, however, that he has more compelling things to say.

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Posted on 8 December 2011, in Book Reviews & Literaria. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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