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The Species Seekers Chosen 1 of 12 Books of Christmas: “Exceptionally Engaging”

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 16, 2010

Here’s today’s review from The Well-Read Naturalist:

Take even a brief look into the histories of those stalwart early naturalists who in the 1600s began fanning out across the globe in search of new forms of life and you will quickly come to understand that theirs were far from normal or average lives. Aside from the physical hardships and deprivations of travel (almost always by ship) in those days – bad food, cramped quarters, fetid water, scurvy and other diseases, drowning, pirates, shipwrecks, etc. – there were, should one survive the trip, myriad dangers peculiar to the destination itself still awaiting the intrepid explorer.

Then, if all went well and specimens were successfully collected without the exploring naturalist succumbing to disease, being killed by less-than-friendly local peoples, or simply getting lost and never heard from again, there was the problem of how to get everything back home. To a reasonable person, such an endeavor would be thought sheer madness; fortunately, as Richard Conniff so well explains in The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, madmen (and a few women as well) willing to undertake such journeys for the sake of science, fame, riches, sheer curiosity, or some combination of all of these were in no short supply during those early days of scientific exploration.

Not all of them were completely mad of course (although a strong argument could be made that most of them had at least a screw or two not completely tightened); some were simply enthusiastic amateurs posted as soldiers or in the employ of emerging global commercial enterprises such as the British East India Company or its Dutch counterpart who found themselves in far off and exotic locales where throwing a rock at random could likely result in it hitting some manner of creature not yet known in Europe.

Be they who and whatsoever they may have been, Conniff has collected their stories and in The Species Seekers recounts them, together with a goodly portion of the natural histories of their respective discoveries as well as the effects upon the societies of the nations in which collected specimens were studied, exhibited, and in many cases transformed into commercial objects, in a style that is exceptionally engaging, often somewhat playful (his frequent puns will have the attentive reader groaning with appreciation) and wholly intelligible to readers of most all levels of previous knowledge the history of natural history.

Title: The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth

Author: Richard Conniff (twitter, blog)

Publisher: W. W. Norton

Date of Publication: November 2010

ISBN (clothbound): 978-0-393-06854-2

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