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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 3, January 7, 2023

Review: Steiner on Anctil’s ’Luminous Creatures: The History and Science of Light Production in Living Organisms’

Saturday 7 January 2023


Reviewed by Katharina Steiner (University of Geneva)

Luminous Creatures: The History and Science of Light Production in Living Organisms
by Michel Anctil

Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press

2018. 488 pp.
ISBN 978-0-7735-5312-5

With his book on the history and science of light production in living animals, Michel Anctil offers a rich history of a phenomenon that has triggered not only superstition, optical illusions, and imaginative worlds but also the curiosity of natural historians, biologists, physicists, and chemists for centuries. Luminous Creatures offers a window into the changing institutional and epistemic status of the field. As with other fields of specialization, bioluminescence is shaped by its ascent in the nineteenth century, peak in the 1890s to the 1930s, and its decline and another peak from the 1980s to the 2000s as an area of research and interest. From a long-durée perspective, Anctil traces the evolution of the object of research “from an object of bewildered observation to an object of analysis, from the obscurantism of uncritical interpretation to the scientific insights that led to a Nobel Prize and turned the field into an indispensable tool for medical research, molecular biology, and biotechnology” (p. x).

Historizing the phenomenon from the perspective of a marine biologist, Anctil continues the tradition of the historical accounts on bioluminescence, mainly written by scientists active in the field. Like Edmund Newton Harvey’s historical writings, Luminous Creatures appeared with an academic press, although it could easily address several other audiences.[1] My interpretation of the book is that the author’s goal is to stimulate and elevate the long-standing research program of studying bioluminescence by giving it a history. To this end, Anctil follows a “historical” and a “contextual narration” (p. x), with the aim to “strike a balance between my interest in exposing scientific research and the need to provide the human and social backgrounds from which the research sprang” (p. xi). More than just a history of ideas explaining the hypothesis, data, and methods, it is a detailed story successfully interweaving ideas, careers, practices, and institutions.

The book proceeds chronologically and consists of eighteen chapters which are organized into six parts. Even in length, each part offers a window into a distinct period of research on and with bioluminescence. Scientific milestones, important research programs, and researchers in the field’s journey set the anchors of each part. Following chapter 1, which introduces readers to indigenous and popular legends, sightings, and early natural histories accounts from antiquity and the Renaissance, the book focuses on modern times: the yield of James Cook’s voyages marks one of several pivot points toward a biological explanation of the luminous seas. Together with chapters 2 and 3 capturing the Enlightenment and the beginnings of the long nineteenth century, part 1 sets the stage for a history of bioluminescence that covers the diversity of marine biological research, biochemistry, and applied sciences.

Parts 2 and 3 take the beginnings of modern marine biology into account, presenting bioluminescence as one of its domains. The period from 1850 to World War I is marked by the classification of large quantities of new species with light-producing organs. Over the course of six chapters, the basic science that was conducted for understanding the species’ behavior, biology, and ecology and the physiology of light-emitting cells, the luciferin-luciferase, is presented in detail and with many illustrations. Anctil thoroughly grounds the natural history and physiology of such luminous creatures in the broader history of European-led oceanic expeditions and that of individual research trajectories of biologists invested in the field.

Part 4 shifts our attention to the post-World War I United States. Chapters 10 and 11 focus on the circle around Edmund Newton Harvey, who “had made his Princeton Physiological Laboratory the most advanced center of bioluminescence research in the world” (p. 237). Harvey and his group dominated the research on proteins and biochemistry in the first half of the twentieth century. In contrast, chapter 12 is a contribution to William Beebe and his Bathysphere, who seems a “throwback to the heyday of the nineteenth-century European model of naturalists … always fret to roam the natural world freely and shun the armchair and the laboratory bench” (p. 269). Part 5 moves the reader beyond the Princeton group during Harvey’s lifetime. Chapters 13 and 14 follow the peculiar careers of four biologists orbiting Harvey’s students and collaborators, focusing on the Alpha Helix Bioluminescence Expedition in chapter 15.

Part 6 is dedicated to the adaptation of bioluminescence as a research instrument for applied science. While chapter 16 lays emphasis on military research during the Cold War, chapters 17 and 18 look at the tools of molecular genetics: low-light image intensifiers and fluorescence microscopy, and the use of bioluminescent molecular trackers for biomedical research.

With caveats, the book lives up to its claims to provide a cultural and social contextualization of how the scientific understanding of natural phenomena and the science of bioluminescence changed across the eighteenth, nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Luminous Creatures lives up to its title, holding out the prospect to narrate the history—thoroughly grounded in the history of oceanic expeditions and biographies of scientists, their research interests, scientific challenges, and achievements—and the science of the light production in living organisms.

Depending on the perspective from which historians approach this book, they might well miss its engagement with current debates in the history of science, medicine, and technology. Anctil touches upon many themes and topics that historians of science think about, but he does not write in the history of science tradition. This is not a point against the book, as one has to acknowledge the book’s scientific purpose.

Luminous Creatures is an outstanding resource which is of great value for historians interested in the field. It includes a 48-page bibliography consisting of approximately 960 references to science papers and monographs that served as primary sources throughout the text and about 30 secondary sources. The downside: archival sources are not referenced. But this seems consistent with the author’s motivation to build the historical foundation of a discipline rather than provide a historiographical contribution.

In this way, Luminous Creatures can be seen as a historical source itself, written to urge bioluminescence forward and call for a return to basic, unpredictable research from the applied, medical research of recent years. He is open to where this research will go but predicts the recent trend in visual ecology could combine with study of molecular mechanisms to yield productive problems amenable to large-scale projects.

Erratum: This review was revised on December 13, 2022 to correct the book title from Luminous Animals to Luminous Creatures.—Ed.


[1]. Edmund Newton Harvey, A History of Luminescence. From the Earliest Times unit 1900 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1957).

[This work is reproduced here from H-Net Reviews, December 2022 under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License]

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