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A Lively and Enthusiastic Tale of Adventure and Discovery

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 15, 2010

This is a lovely, well-informed review of The Species Seekers, from epinions, of all places.  The reviewer, identified only as “driftless,” is apparently a Wisconsin reader with a thing for cycling, insects, and old movies.  If only he wrote for, say, the New York Times Book Review:

It was a time of fanaticism and fervor.   In the 19th century, enthused by tales of adventure and derring-do across the world, young men would sail across the globe, risking death from accident, disease, drowning or cannibals, searching for new discoveries.  The goal was not new lands or territories – the continents had already been divvied up – but new forms of life.

There was an intellectual zeal at the time that caused these men to weather incredible hardships in the quest to be the first white man to describe a new tree, quadruped or butterfly.   Some would go on to fame and fortune, others would die of malaria or cholera, but all too often, after spending several years collecting thousands of specimens, taking copious notes, gathering loads of data, they would sail for home, often getting within sight of the European coast, only to founder on the rocks and sink, losing all of the fruits of their labor.   If they made it home alive, they would often make plans to return to the tropics and try again.  In The Species Seekers, writer Richard Conniff tells the stories of these intrepid investigators.

During the Age of Discovery, voyagers brought back hoards of exotic and unusual plants and animals.  The scientists of the time had no reliable method to categorize these finds, even arguing over whether a given animal was a bird, fish or mammal at times.  Conniff describes how order was brought to this chaos by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish physician who conceived the taxonomic system used to this day, including the binomial nomenclature that names the human species, Homo sapiens.   This remarkably effective system inspired countless aspiring young scientists to travel the world seeking to name every new creature they encountered.

Over almost 400 pages, Conniff tells the story of famous collectors like Darwin and Audubon, but he spends most of the book relating stories of naturalists of whom I’ve never heard.   His descriptions of the various heroes, villains, buffoons and charlatans make for entertaining reading.  He also delves deeply into the politics and class warfare that permeated these efforts; the battles waged over the significance of the discovery of the gorilla are particularly interesting.  His writing style is lively and enthusiastic and he clearly enjoys telling these tales.

The book moves along quickly, but it’s not until the last couple chapters that Conniff’s true inspiration is apparent.   It’s not so much a surprise ending, but he concisely clarifies how important these discoveries turn out to be.  The entire taxonomic edifice constructed by Linnaeus, Darwin and many others provides the structure that leads directly to triumph over infectious horrors like malaria, yellow fever and almost every other tropical scourge to have plagued humankind over millennia.   These medical victories would never have occurred had it not been for the mad efforts of hundreds of indefatigable naturalists, many of whom gave their lives in the effort.   Conniff even includes an inspiring Necrology section at the end of the book where he lists a brief bio of several dozen scientists who died on the job, often quite horribly.

Much more than a book about butterfly collectors and bird watchers, The Species Seekers tells the birth story of modern biology and much of modern medicine.     Conniff’s focus on the unusual individuals that made this possible is a fitting tribute to these daring, but mostly unrecognized, men and women.   The world would be a much different place without them.

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