When I ordered the book, I didn't even realize the edition was abridged. The book arrived suspiciously smaller than I expected it, almost half size. I thought maybe my memory deceived me, but apparently no.
In the introduction of the editor, Mr. John Tyler Bonner, is so kind as to explain that he mistook a classic book on organism and form, for a scientific one. In order to make the book accessible to general public (who said it was not?) and to "correct" Mr. D'Arcy's writing, Mr. Bonner removed the "dangerous" chapters with "vague" (always according to him) arguments, and the "out-of-date" material, and finally to turned D'Arcy's book into his own.
What I want to clarify is that I am not giving two stars to Mr. D'Arcy's book, for this book I did not read. Instead I am giving 2 stars to Mr. Bonner, to Cambridge University Press, to Canto and to Amazon (for not noting this is an abridged piece of work) for destroying a classic.
REMINDER: THE BOOK IS ABRIDGED EDITION, and the editor not so great
I, too, am a longtime fan of D'Arcy Thompson's endearing (enduring) classic. I've read the discussion. I appreciate very much that Golan Levin, in "Canto: An unfortunate redaction of a timeless classic," and others as well, have made it clear to Amazon customers that the Canto (Cambridge University Press) version of this book is radically abridged, as compared to Dover's (apparently) unabridged edition. This kind of comparative information--about a book's being published under different editions, and what those editions contain--is the kind of crucial info which, as things stand, we customers have to contribute.
It's unfortunate, if understandable, that the bulk of the laudatory reviews here don't specify which edition these people read. Some of them appear to be from scientists and/or mathematicians: they are, perhaps, readers of the unabridged version. Viktor Blasjo's 5-star review *does* specify: he reports from the Dover unabridged, and a great report it is, too. He convinced me to pick up a copy.
Other reviewers seem to have come to D'Arcy Thompson from a more varied background, for their words remind me of my own experience: I first read this book at the age of 19, breathlessly turning the pages, filled to the brim with a sense of growing wonder about what science could do. In Thompson's hands, science opened up the secrets of Nature, right before my eyes. I'd read a fair amount of literature for my age, so from a more sophisticated angle, I relished the many passages of elegant writing--charmingly earnest, sometimes almost passionate. (Thompson's literary excellence comes in spurts, folks, so be patient.) "On Growth and Form" came, in time, to have a big influence on me: I'd been on the fence about science vs. literature for a major, and Thompson was the first in a series of dominoes that toppled me into a chemistry major, followed by medical school and becoming a doctor.
So what edition was this marvel of a book that I read? The abridged version, the 1961 edition, from the very same publisher (Cambridge University Press) and editor (John Tyler Bonner, PhD., Professor of Biology, Princeton University) to whom Levin and others have devoted so many unkind words.
I don't know, but I rather suspect, that at least a few of the other highly positive reviews have come from people who've had their experience of "On Growth and Form" with that very same abridged version. I did hear from someone in university publishing circles, in the '70s, that it was a surprising seller for such an odd little book.
Two of the other reviewers' comments, in particular, caught my attention:
"I have recommended it to home schoolers as the
best single book to inform a teenager about physics,
chemistry, biology, & practical thinking."
"This could be read by a junior or senior in high
school. But, I think it would be more appropriate
Can these people be talking about an 1100-page book? I'll grant any young person the ability to read anything, but the attention span, the sheer time it would take, to read 1100 pages... I just don't think they're talking about the unabridged version. One of the reasons Prof. Bonner gives for abridging the text, is to streamline the presentation of the ideas so as to keep the reader's attention. Is that *so* heretical? This is a master teacher talking here!
Oops--I got ahead of myself. Yes, Bonner was in fact *my* teacher. I had a real stroke of luck: John Tyler Bonner was my professor of Introductory Biology, freshman year. I savored his verbal brilliance in the lecture hall, and especially enjoyed getting to know his gentle, lively person, on various social occasions. His research was in slime molds--mind-boggling critters who change their form from a sheetlike syncytium to tall stalks like lollipops, then back again--an organism well-suited to the ideas of Thompson regarding stretching and shrinking of surfaces according to mathematically describable patterns.
I was an undergrad in the years 1973-77, by which time Professor Bonner's 1961 edit of D'Arcy Thompson's "On Growth and Form" was churning through multiple printings as an attractive, popular trade paperback. I knew lots of people who were reading it, or had it on their shelves. It was never assigned for any course (not even Prof. Bonner's Intro Biology), but somehow we all read it--science, poli-sci, history, English majors alike. But you don't have to go back to college with me to read at least some of what we read: Prof. Bonner's original 1961 introduction is in this Cambridge/Canto edition, plus his rousing 1992 follow-up. I haven't seen the book, so I don't know anything about the nature or extent of the re-edits in 1992, but Bonner does say a bit about them.
Just in case someone missed that: I do not know about the nature or extent of the 1992 re-edits. So I'm not speaking for the quality of this specific edition--just for the 1961 Cambridge/Canto abridged edition that I came to know and love so well. It seems to bode well, though, that Prof. Bonner is still at the helm.
More generally, though, I'm speaking for the notion that there's room for both, or many: a classic book is important enough to deserve more than one treatment. Look at all the editions of classic works of fiction: abridged, unabridged, children's version, illustrated #1, illustrated #2, comic book, annotated, revised w/ newly-discovered author's notes, corrected edition after original hand-written manuscript found in trunk buried on Treasure Island...
You can read Prof. Bonner's '61 introduction (which I think is lovely, but then I would) and his '92 follow-up on the new edition (he comments insightfully about the continuing relevance of Thompson's ideas to the past 30 years' advances in biology). You can also read the foreword by Stephen Jay Gould. (I'm surprised Amazon didn't get *his* name into the author field!) Just use the oh-so-helpful LOOK INSIDE! feature. To read the Intro, do a search on "Editor's", click the first hit, read & page forward as far as you can, then click the next instance of "Editor's", and so on. (You may have to improvise a bit to read the whole intro in order.) To read Gould's forward, just search on "Gould."
I strongly encourage those of you who are interested in this issue of page-lengths of different editions, degrees of reduction of the text, etc., to use LOOK INSIDE! and read what Bonner has to say on that point. Some of the reasons he gives for further shortening of the work are truly Thompsonian. =grin= And, thanks to Amazon, you can read those remarks just as you might've in a bookstore--while you're considering which edition to buy, or whether to buy both.
Enough. Enjoy. The more the merrier.
Oh--the five stars? Those are for the Platonic ideal of D'Arcy Thompson's "On Growth and Form."
Most biologists have heard of D'Arcy Thompson's famous book, and have seen his drawings that show how apparently different animals -- fish, for example -- can be transformed into one another by distorting the coordinate system. Sometimes a simple skewing or stretching will suffice, but in other cases more complicated transformations are needed. Few, however, have read the book, and few realize that the famous drawings come right at the end of a long and detailed argument in which D'Arcy Thompson establishes the importance of purely physical considerations in deciding the forms taken by organisms.
D'Arcy Thompson was not opposed to the idea of natural selection, and recognized that it was part of the explanation of evolution. However, he was writing at the beginning of the 20th century at a time when he felt that natural selection was regarded as the complete and only explanation of evolution, and he wanted to show that it wasn't as simple as that. In a modern book, Richard Dawkins's "The Ancestor's Tale", we can read that "Animal shapes are malleable like plasticine. A fish can change in evolutionary time to whatever unfishy shape is required for its way of life." This is the point of view that D'Arcy Thompson considered exaggerated, because he argued that there are many physical constraints that limit this infinite malleability (less, perhaps, for animals that live in the water than for land animals that must take account of gravity, but real nonetheless). He shows that many features of animals must and do obey the same rules as those followed by engineers in designing bridges.
D'Arcy Thompson's style is quite unlike any other -- "scholarly" would be an understatement -- and much of the book can be read for the pleasure of the language. Even at the time of writing (originally 1917) it must have been optimistic to think that scientist readers could cope with abundant quotations from other writers left untranslated from Greek, Latin, German or French. (In the unabridged 2nd edition that I once leafed through but have not read, I think there were some in Spanish and Italian, but I didn't find any of these in the abridged edition.) Most of the French quotations are quite important for the argument, and I suppose the same is probably true for the others, so a modern reader inevitably loses some of the sense. The most extreme example is a whole page devoted to a quotation from Buffon in support of the author's contention that the popular idea that honeybees are brilliant engineers is due to a failure to understand the purely physical constraints involved in constructing a honeycomb.
Some of the other reviewers have commented that in preparing this abridged edition John Tyler Bonner emasculated the original. Although I have some sympathy with this criticism I think it is too strong. For many readers the effect of reading the abridged edition will be to stimulate them to read the book in full -- as I certainly shall now do.