In Search of the Dream Textbook : Romer's Morphology (2008.2.1[Fri])


I suppose that everyone encounters some degree of difficulty in his studies or research endeavors while still young. In my case, one of my biggest concerns was just finding the textbooks I needed to read. The problem was that the books and information I was seeking just weren't available in bookstores. This was before the internet or, so it was in fact a serious hardship. As I've written about before, the field of Japanese animal morphology had just barely struggled into existence in the beginning of the Showa Era (1920s and 30s), but by the time I was born, people had already begun to refer to "the postwar period" as a bygone age. The way time was speeding by, you couldn't really even think of morphologists as dilettantes. In order to bring about a renaissance of the field what was needed was something resembling an archaeological dig, and looking back on the time I spent making copies and interpreting manuscripts, perhaps that is actually what I was doing.

    At the Kyoto University Faculty of Science in the late 1970s, when I was a student there, the biological sciences were roughly divided into traditional "macro" scale studies such as ecology, taxonomy and physiology, and an emerging group of "micro" scale fields, led by molecular biology. It's fair to say that the students also aligned themselves along similar lines, with the macro group undoubtedly feeling at least some pressure from the young micro turks. And as for morphology, at the time not even the macro crowd had any time for it, and the field seemed to be on the brink of oblivion, a fossil relic needing only an appropriate place to be buried and forgotten. Nobody in their right mind would be caught studying morphology, but I just ignored the mood of the day (or at least didn't try to fight it), and kept on looking for books with detailed comparative descriptions of vertebrate skeletons. I suppose it was rash on my part, at a time when I should have been thinking about my future career, but I was hooked and just couldn't give up my search. Of course I felt completely isolated from both of the main cliques, but at the same time, I thought they were both equally guilty of neglecting morphology in their approaches to understanding the phenomena of life. Even with my own chosen field seemingly on verge of obsolescence, I still couldn't swallow the notion that biology is a vehicle rolling along solely on the twin wheels of ecology and taxonomy. Perhaps that was because the idea of approaching biology from a fundamental of genes and cells seemed equally valid. Essentially, comparative morphology hasn't even been recognized by universities as a field of study in my lifetime, and now I've gotten so used to it that I find it difficult to worry about the prospect of any further decline.

    The curricula I had studied up through high school were of little relevance to my personal interests in animal morphology. My interest was first piqued by Colbert's "Evolution of the Vertebrates", in a translation by the man who would later become my mentor. That book was the first to open my eyes to a systematic approach to the fundamentals of comparative morphology Ethe order in which the world's animal taxa evolved, and the ways their morphological traits emerged Eand how these related to taxonomy. Although this was in a sense a scientific textbook, it was still quite a general work, so I turned to its bibliography in search of more erudite fare. I was particularly eager to lay hold of a copy of "Vertebrate Paleontology" by Alfred Sherwood Romer, and although I finally located one in the zoological library stacks, it was impossible to finish the book within the 2-week lending period, so I ordered a copy through the student union. I had to wait several months for it to arrive, and when it did, I hugged it all the way back to my dorm room and devoured the whole thing over the course of a few nights, looking up what felt like every other word in the Iwanami Dictionary of Biology and other references.

    My next conquest was Romer and Parsons' "The Vertebrate Body 5th Edition" (Saunders, 1977), a comprehensive collection covering the general anatomy of the vertebrates co-authored by the same A. S. Romer. This book served as my foundation and lifelong companion in the study of comparative anatomy. Not only did I pore through the book in its entirety, I made extensive notes in the margins on the Japanese equivalents of the many unfamiliar terms (which frankly sometimes resembled some kind of secret code). Even this was no easy task. Finding names human anatomical terms is one thing, but trying to find the correct terms for bones from other species was sometimes impossible. In some cases, it appeared that there was still no accepted term at all*. It goes without saying that there were no courses at the time capable of satisfying a comparative "bone-head" like myself.

    The dictionary I used in my decipherings was the second edition Iwanami, which had been extensively revised in the midst of all the excitement surrounding molecular biology in the 1970s, resulting in the culling of the first edition's thoroughgoing glossary of morphological terms by some narrow-minded twit. I didn't know it at the time, but using that for a reference was like working with one hand tied behind my back. Actually, maybe it's better that I didn't know about that travesty until later (many of the missing words reappeared in the fourth edition). In any case, it was a real impediment to my reading. Back then, none of the books on animal morphology had English glossaries. I wanted to learn, but books of the sort I needed just weren't available, so I was left in a constant state of hunger for my late teens and early twenties. The fact that I was able to acquire such a large technical vocabulary in such a short time while saddled with such a poor resource I think stands as a testament to the power of dissatisfaction as a motivator.

    After happily working my way through the annotation of the Romer text, I found that it was now itself a glossary of sorts, and some of my friends at school preferred making cyanotype copies of my marked up version to purchasing their own new copy. There were already copy machines by then, but they were still expensive, making it uneconomical for a student to photocopy a several-hundred page book. So we used cyanotype for big jobs, like resumes for school groups and classroom notes. This involved the tedious process of exposing a thin film treated with a photosensitive solution to yellow light and then drying it, yielding a blue image. The things you do for love. As I got a bit more money and gained practice accumulating my huge collection of photocopied manuscripts, I became something of a copy-demon, even copying and binding an entire dictionary once. I suppose it's a case of losing one's ill-gotten gains, but all those copies I made somehow ended up scattered or in friends' collections. But that copy of Romer's "Vertebrate Body" that I bought with my own money is still with me, its worn viridian spine still shining on my shelf. It's one of the oldest companions in my library, and I'm sure I will go back to it many times in the future.

* This is in fact true for a number of terms, such as ala temporalis and submandibular recess, for which I ended up having to create Japanese versions when I was writing "Evolutionary Morphology" (University of Tokyo Press, 2004)