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Heroic Naturalists or Imperialist Dogs?

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 23, 2011

Here’s the latest column in my Specimens series for the New York Times.

What does it mean to discover a species? Who should get the credit for it? Why did early naturalists think it worth risking their lives, and often losing them, to ship home the first specimens of a previously unknown butterfly or bat? These turn out to be tangled questions, and it is easy to get stuck on the thorns.

Not long ago, for instance, I wrote that a 19th-century French missionary and naturalist in China, Père Armand David, had “discovered” the snub-nosed golden monkey. A reader sent me this somewhat testy comment: “The answer to the question ‘who discovered it’ is actually the Chinese.” Père David had merely “observed it and introduced it (and many other animals) to the West and into the Western zoological system.”

My irritated reader had a point, of a misguided sort. It’s common these days to dismiss the scientific classification and naming of “new” species as just one more Western appropriation of other peoples’ natural resources, and the golden monkey can seem like a particularly egregious instance. Europeans first saw the species in the form of images in Chinese paintings and porcelains. But it looked so odd, with a fringe of flame red hair around its bluish-white face, that they mistook it for a figment of the Chinese imagination.

David himself may never actually have seen these mountain-dwelling monkeys in the wild. Instead, his Chinese hunters brought him six specimens in the course of a long and productive expedition into western Sichuan province. David shipped the specimens back to Paris, along with more than 100 other mammal species. There, in an act of blithe cultural hodgepodgery, a French naturalist described the golden monkey in a scientific journal and gave it the species name roxellana to commemorate the Ukrainian wife of an Ottoman Turkish sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, because monkey and wife both had distinctive up-turned noses. You can see how this might leave people in China feeling a little left out.

Nor were they alone. The truth is that many of the species discovered by early naturalists had already been known to local people, sometimes in great detail, long before outsiders arrived to describe them scientifically. Moreover, the naturalists often depended on knowledgeable locals to show them what was there, and seldom gave proper credit for the help.  But to call this local knowledge “discovery” is like saying Newton didn’t discover gravity, because people already knew that things have a way of falling down.

Naturalists often relied on local collectors

The key to scientific discovery is making knowledge available to people everywhere, usually by publishing a detailed description in a scientific journal. It means saying exactly how the proposed species resembles other related species, and how it’s different, thereby assigning it to a place in a universal system of classification. (Even highly-trained scientists can sometimes gawp at a species for a century or two before they notice the differences. Thus scientists have only lately confirmed that the African elephant is actually two distinct species, the savanna elephant and the forest elephant. Technically speaking, the latter species was only discovered in 2010.)

Discovery also means giving your find a name, by genus and species. The Latinate construction of these names can sometimes sound as if they are meant to exclude rather than inform. (The soldier fly Parastratiosphecomyia stratiosphecomyioides comes stumbling to mind). But before this system of species names came into existence, people could hardly communicate about the plants and animals in their own backyards — one town’s “dandelion” was another’s “pissabed” — much less from one country to another. After, they could start to see and talk about connections among species at opposite ends of the Earth.

The Chinese meanwhile had abundant local knowledge of their plants and animals, and Western explorers gladly took advantage of it, according to Fa-Ti Fan, a historian at Binghamton University and author of “British Naturalists in Qing China.” But, Fan writes, the Chinese “did not have a discipline, a system of knowledge, or even a coherent scholarly tradition equivalent to Western notions of ‘natural history,’ ‘botany,’ or ‘zoology.’ ”

David Armand in priestly attire

And in disguise. (Both by Clare Conniff)

And in that context, Père Armand David’s discoveries — unencumbered by asterisks or quotation marks — were crucial. He certainly displayed plenty of colonial arrogance, flouting local lords and their rules. (He had come to China “pursued with the thought of dying while working at the saving of infidels,” and there was a certain unholy insouciance about the way he drew his gun on would-be bandits.) But long before the Chinese themselves noticed, he warned that the plundering of their forests would wipe out “hundreds of thousands of animals and plants given to us by God,” leaving behind a landscape of horses, pigs, wheat and potatoes. If David had not brought them to the attention of the outside world, many of his new species — among them the giant panda — would in fact now be lost.

One of his least heroic discoveries, now known as Père David’s deer, or Elaphurus davidianus, was described on the basis of skins he probably obtained illegally, from the imperial hunting grounds south of Beijing. That find led European diplomats to press for live specimens to be shipped back to Europe for breeding. When Chinese soldiers bivouacking on the imperial hunting grounds later shot and ate the last remaining deer there, the species was extinct in China. But because of reintroductions from Europe — and the work of Père David — these deer in fact now number about a thousand in their native habitat.

Discoveries by another early naturalist in China, Patrick “Mosquito” Manson, later enabled the government there to wipe out the hideously debilitating disease called elephantiasis. His work also led to the eradication or control of malaria in countries around the world. Likewise, work by early discoverers recently enabled researchers in China to pin down the source of SARS to four species of horseshoe bat in the genus Rhinolophus.

A simple-minded story line about imperialists appropriating natural resources — with great white hunters playing out their heroic exploits at the expense of local cultures — may have its revisionist appeal. But it’s at least equally important to recognize that the work of early naturalists continues to save lives and protect resources today. The best evidence of its value is that every country from China to Gabon to Colombia now employs this scientific system of discovery and classification as a better way to understand not just our world, but theirs.


Postscript: Thank you to the many readers who sent me names, in response to last week’s column, of naturalists who died in the course of discovery. The several dozen additions to The Wall of the Dead include an Italian prince who was trampled to death by an enraged elephant (but discovered one of Africa’s most spectacularly colorful birds), an Indian pollen researcher killed by terrorists while reportedly trying to help a child during the 1986 hijacking of a Pan Am flight in Karachi and a Brazilian naturalist who survived a series of debilitating tropical diseases before finally being fatally poisoned by contact with a frog. They had in common the belief that understanding the natural world was important enough to wager their lives on it.

2 Responses to “Heroic Naturalists or Imperialist Dogs?”

  1. Alix Schnee said

    Fascinating article about the nature of scientific discoveries. However on one point you might be wrong with respect to the elimination of elephantiasis. I lived in Burma in 1961-65. Sadly elephantiasis was prevalent in Rangoon, indeed there was one person who sat by the American Embassy that had it; I also saw people with it in New Delhi, India during the same years.

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