Book review – Luminous Creatures: The History and Science of Light Production in Living Organisms

Beetles do it. As do fish. And squid, sharks, jellyfish, salps, dinoflagellates, and a host of other invertebrates. Bioluminescence, the production of light by living organisms, is one of nature’s most awe-inspiring spectacles and has fascinated humans since time immemorial. Luminous Creatures, written by bioluminescence researcher Michel Anctil, is a chunky book that charts the history of scientific research on this phenomenon by examining the lives and achievements of many of the key players involved. Along the way, it lifts the lid on many of the wondrous details of bioluminescence.

Luminous Creatures

Luminous Creatures: The History and Science of Light Production in Living Organisms“, written by Michel Anctil, published by McGill-Queens University Press in June 2018 (hardback, 467 pages)

The prologue of the book pleasingly situates it in the wider literature and Anctil very explicitly mentions other books on the topic, and how his book differs. Probably the biggest caveat for readers is that this book is less about the biology and more about the history of scientific research on this bioluminescence. Luckily, the biology has been adequately covered in two recent books, Bioluminescence: Living Lights, Lights for Living, which is quite heavy on the biochemical details, and Fireflies, Glow-Worms, and Lightning Bugs: Identification and Natural History of the Fireflies of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada which, although part identification guide to these insects, also contains plenty of information on the biology of bioluminescence. And if you really want to know the hardcore technical details, there is always Bioluminescence: Chemical Principles and Methods. This leaves Anctil free to focus on the history of the science.

The book follows a largely chronological format, starting with the earliest observations during Antiquity, the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. Naturalists in these periods recorded observations of glowing insects and fish, and sailors and mariners were familiar with the sight of luminescent waters. There was plenty of speculation and superstition, but little in the way of experimental work to elucidate details. That had to wait until oceanography as a scientific discipline took off.

As explorations were mounted to map the sea bottom, scientists discovered the many bizarre denizens of the deep (see my review of Deep-Sea Fishes: Biology, Diversity, Ecology and Fisheries, and pictorial works such as Creatures of the Deep: In Search of the Sea’s Monsters and the World They Live in). And with it, they discovered a hitherto unknown world where bioluminescence was far more plentiful than anyone could have ever imagined. Notable in this regard was the work of William Beebe and Otis Barton, who in the 1930s lowered themselves into the deep in a bathysphere, and observed this first-hand (see Descent: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss).

“As explorations were mounted to map the sea bottom, scientists discovered […] [an] unknown world where bioluminescence was far more plentiful than anyone could have ever imagined.”

But, by and large, biologists relied on fish and other creatures brought up from the deep and Anctil charts the early anatomical research on the structure of light-producing organs and the long research programme on the biochemical details of how light is produced. Although this research extended to terrestrial insects, overwhelmingly, bioluminescence turned out to be associated with the deep sea.

Anctil excerpts material from obituaries, memoirs, books, correspondence, and archives (all carefully and explicitly attributed) to thread together biographical vignettes of numerous important scientists. By detailing their lives, interests, and careers, he reveals their professional victories and setbacks, their academic quarrels and personal quirks, and their academic legacy and influence on future scholars. Prominently featured are the Italian anatomist Paolo Panceri, the French biochemist Raphaël Dubois, the American zoologist Edmund Newton Harvey, and the Japanese biologist Yata Haneda. Especially Harvey has been incredibly influential, leading a successful research laboratory in Princeton that trained many students that became influential scientists in their own right.

Using a chronological format allows Anctil to explore outdated ideas that were superseded as our understanding grew. For example, Panceri thought that the luminescence was caused by the reaction between a fatty substance and oxygen, and that nerve cells were a source of light, while Dubois had several changes of heart during his career as to the nature and number of chemical compounds that cause luminescence. Technological developments were instrumental in advancing our knowledge, and, as with plate tectonics, the military and the navy have been unexpected research partners at times. Their interest was in the effect of bioluminescence and the mass movement of bioluminescent organisms in the water column on submarines and sonar.

“Technological developments were instrumental in advancing our knowledge, and […] the military and the navy have been unexpected research partners at times.”

Although Anctil has neatly structured the book, I occasionally got somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer number of names introduced. Plenty of period portraits are included to put faces to the most important names, but I would have loved an illustrated timeline to relate these researchers and their achievements to each other.

The book is not all history though, and the biological details are diffusely woven throughout. Questions of biochemistry and physiology (the “how” questions) have dominated research on bioluminescence, and Anctil provides plenty of details on the chemistry responsible for light production and the physiological and neurological mechanisms to activate light-producing organs. Questions of function (the “why” questions) have seen plenty of (informed) speculation but are far harder to study. Communication, sexual displays, species recognition, deception or confusion of predators, luring of prey, camouflage by counter-illumination (graphically explained in Eyes to See: The Astonishing Variety of Vision in Nature) – these and other explanations are generally given as to why animals produce light (see also The Biology of the Deep Ocean). The evolution of bioluminescence is another outstanding matter and one that is only briefly touched upon here. Finally, the biotechnological applications and the story of how green fluorescent protein became a workhorse in molecular biology are only cursorily mentioned. For that, you can turn to Chemiluminescence and Bioluminescence: Past, Present and Future.

With above remarks I am not faulting Luminous Creatures for not being “the-complete-book-on-bioluminescence”. That would rather miss the point as Anctil clearly outlines and delimits the scope of this book and refers readers to the appropriate literature. Instead, this is an incredibly well researched and informative book on our enduring fascination with living lights specifically, and on the history of marine biology and oceanography more generally.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

You can support this blog using below affiliate links, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases:

Luminous Creatures hardback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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