Vergleichende Anatomie der Wirbeltiere   (2006.6.1[Thu])

 

In this issue, I'd like to introduce a fairly recent textbook, rather than an antiquarian work.It's frequently insinuated that anatomy and morphology are dead fields of study, but I'd like to argue against that contention. And I say that knowing full well that making these kinds of statements tends to come across as either the wistful ramblings of a niche minority infatuated with museum science, or a comeback rally by an already beaten team. But neither of those is my intent. Rather, what I hope to show is that, even as cell and molecular biology rose to preeminence during the 1970s and 80s, casting a long shadow over other classical fields, a number of (in fact, quite a few) important new texts on morphology were still being published.

 Even in my own field of interest, vertebrate zoology, there was a string of noteworthy textbooks on modern approaches to comparative vertebrate morphology and anatomy, including Adolf Portmann's Einführung in die vergleichende Morpohologie der Wirbeltiere (1979; published by Iwakuni; Japanese transl. by Saburo Shimazaki), Erik Jarvik's two-volume Basic Structure and Evolution of Vertebrates (1980) and The Ancestry of Vertebrates (1986) by William Jeffries. Any of these would be a worthy of introducing in this column. And the list doesn't end there - during the same period, new editions appeared of E. H. Colbert's Evolution of the Vertebrates, and The Vertebrate Body by AS Romer and TS Parsons (which also came out in a Japanese translation at about the same time). 1977 also saw the publication of Ontogeny and Phylogeny by Stephen J Gould (followed ten years later by Watanabe and Niki's translation into Japanese ). Since the days of von Baer (introduced in these pages previously), the study of comparative morphology has necessarily been built on foundations of comparative development, and in every case, must at some point confront the ultimate, almost monolithic, problem of recapitulation.

 Most of the books listed above were big, substantial tomes, packed with detail and requiring a daunting investment of the reader's time to work through. Whatever else you might say, comparative morphologists in those days certainly lacked for neither interesting reading nor useful teaching materials. What was missing, if anything, was great readers. It was during this same period that Dietrich Starck's 3-volume magnum opus, Vergleichende Anatomie der Wirbeltiere: auf evolutionsbiologischer Grundlage ( Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy), appeared; a work of such breadth, depth and richness it's difficult to believe that it was the product of a single man's mind. This textbook served both as my boot camp in the German language, and remains, scientifically, the basis for my understanding of histology and anatomy.

 Before going any further, I have a confession to make: when I was at university, I dropped my German classes. I was lazy by nature, and didn't find pleasure in what I felt amounted to drill-work in decryption. But then I entered grad school, and my mentor, Motoo Tasumi (Associate Professor of Kyoto University at that time), quickly discovered my little secret and said, All right then, why don't we go through some papers in German together, just you and I? This kind of opportunity isn't likely to happen given the way universities work today (and I should also mention that Dr. Tasumi was in fact even better at French.) I didn't have the nerve to ask him if he was serious about holding a journal club with only one member, but I did manage some feeble resistance like, But everything these days is written in English! To which he responded, Enough. Just do it. Aye-aye sir, and end of discussion. It was like a comedy routine, but I wasn't laughing.

 From that point on, every Monday morning from 10 to noon, we held our two-man circle; Sunday evenings became a depressing exercise in dread. At first, I could only crawl through a few lines at a time. But thanks to my four fallow years as an undergrad, I began to absorb morphological terminology and Starck's sometimes idiosyncratic wording like a sponge, and after a half-year I only rarely needed to refer to a dictionary (I certainly wouldn't want to try that again today). It struck me that a well-written textbook is actually fun to read. And, although native-speaking Germans may not have experienced this, for me there was the additional thrill of working out a message in code. What made it exciting was that the message was not just some empty riddle, but a set of knowledge relevant to the study of animal morphology. It was thanks to reading this work that I first began to realize, Morphology should be grounded in theory, rather than just a pile of observations. If this same book had been part of the series of works from the 1930s that came to be known as Bolk's comparative anatomy *4 *5, or published as a scientific treatise even earlier in Germany, it's a certainty that I wouldn't have gotten through it. And I have to thank Dr. Tasumi, who couldn't have been having much fun at those sessions.

 There's something about the musty smell of old books that seems to suit the carbolic atmosphere of a morphology lab. It's a world dark and sepia-toned. Many of the old textbooks are weighty volumes, bound in leather that promises to leave your finger dusted black as soon as you touch the cover. The language in the classical mode is formidable as well, and reading it can be hard going at times. But Starck's textbooks, while classics, have none of that unapproachability, as he wrote in a straightforward and reader-friendly German. But most importantly, he managed to encapsulate the very essence of the German school of comparative anatomy. Granted, a number of excellent works from America and the UK have become standards in the field, but there's something uniquely different about Starck. Perhaps it's the result of a fundamental difference in philosophiesc

 The ease of his writing, however, presents problems as well. Learning to read him fluently doesn't mean you will therefore be able to jump right into other works written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Just as Japanese from before the war now seems somehow antique and difficult to understand, so do the writings of that bygone age (and perhaps even more so). We may need to make learning 19th century German a requirement for aspiring morphologists.

 I remember having questions on reading his texts, which I somewhat brashly set down in letters to addressed to Starck himself (these, admittedly, I wrote in English) and it was exhilarating to receive responses in the author's own hand (sadly, Starck has since died). I suppose I heartened to find a kindred spirit, someone who was thinking on the same questions that I had that occupied me alonec Or should I say that, as was true of de Beer as well, Starck showed me the questions I wanted to ask? Encountering books truly does mean encountering the people who wrote them.

Reference :" Vergleichende Anatomie der Wirbeltiere"