Web of Nature: Martin Lister (1639-1712), the First Arachnologist

The life of a polymath with 'piercing sagacity' is delightfully rendered, finds Tim Birkhead

October 27, 2011

An enlightening event in my career as a scientist was co-supervising a history of science PhD student. I was shocked by the way those in the humanities give talks: loath to use visual aids, fond of reciting from a prepared script, and indeed writing their talks so they could be published as read. After listening to one such talk at a history of science conference, I commented to my student on the speaker's inaccessible language. With a weary sigh, she replied that if she ever hoped to have a position as a historian, that was how she would have to write and speak.

In fact, age was a factor here. When I encouraged my student to give her own talk in plain language, standing and using PowerPoint and not merely reading from her prepared text, it was only the older generation that disapproved. Younger researchers were delighted - although they were perplexed by PowerPoint, which they'd never seen before!

Anna Marie Roos is, thankfully, part of the generation of science historians that also believes in plain language, and her superb biography of the 17th-century polymath Martin Lister is a pleasure to read.

Science was just finding its feet in the mid-1600s when Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren and others helped to found the Royal Society, of which Lister would eventually become vice-president. Trained as a physician, Lister retained a fascination for natural history throughout his life and was described by Boyle as having a "piercing sagacity".

This sagacity is evident from Lister's pioneering and penetrating study of spiders. But Lister's arachnid research also reveals what was then a new aspect of scientific endeavour, but today is uppermost in researchers' minds: priority. Lister was the first to discover a behaviour known as "ballooning", by which certain spiders disperse in the air on a silk thread, sometimes travelling considerable distances. Lister disclosed the discovery to his mentor John Ray, who then (without Lister's knowledge) passed it on to others. It ended up being published anonymously in the Philosophical Transactions, allowing another natural historian, Edward Hulse, to claim the discovery for himself. It was a messy affair from which Lister eventually emerged successful, and today he is credited with the discovery.

Lister also produced the first classification of spiders and the first account of their extraordinary sex lives. Keeping spiders in captivity, he was able to witness the male's elaborate courtship - which Lister recognised was designed to avoid cannibalisation by the larger female - and its bizarre sperm-on-a-spoon mode of insemination. Rather than using a penis, male spiders collect sperm from their genital opening and place it inside the female by means of a specialised pair of appendages called pedipalps. It was on the strength of his classification of spiders, rather than his account of their sex life, that Lister was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in November 1671.

Spiders were only part of it. Lister was staggeringly productive and his many publications include a monograph on molluscs, beautifully illustrated by his two hard-working daughters. He was also successful as a doctor, rising to become one of Queen Anne's physicians. Despite his success - or probably because of it - a strange aspect of Lister's life was the fact that he was publicly lampooned. It isn't obvious whether this was in a Spitting Image kind of way or something more sinister, but as Roos makes clear in this detailed and definitive work, Lister was extremely irritated by it.

Web of Nature: Martin Lister (1639-1712), the First Arachnologist

By Anna Marie Roos

Brill, 478pp, €129.00

ISBN 9789004207035

Published 31 August 2011

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