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LA Times on The Species Seekers

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 2, 2011

Here’ s the L.A. Times review of The Species Seekers:

by Sue Horton

As prehistoric cave drawings attest, humans have been fascinated by other species since earliest times. But it wasn’t until the 18th century that a comprehensive, science-based system for identifying and classifying them was developed. For that we can thank Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist and physician, who first devised a pyramid of categories — including kingdom, class, order, genus and species — into which all life forms could fit.

Linnaeus’ “Systema Naturae,” published in 1735, got many things wrong, but it was still revolutionary. As Richard Conniff writes in “The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth,” the “ability to distinguish one species from another and to sort out the relationships among species was … a critical advance for understanding life on earth.” It also, he writes, inspired a great age of discovery, in which a new type of naturalist traveled the globe in search of previously unidentified life forms. In the course of collecting and cataloguing plant and animal species, humans “stumbled from the security of a world centered on our species, created for our comfort and salvation, to a world in which we are one of many species.”

The 18th century and 19th century naturalists at the center of this highly readable book were often arrogant adventure seekers, desirous of the status that came with putting their names on previously undiscovered species. But even though they were rarely driven by a pure desire to advance science, many of them were intensely interested in getting things right and in understanding how species fit into their ecosystems.

Though Linnaeus fervently believed that God was responsible for the creation of each and every species, his disciples inevitably began to question that notion. Fossils suggested an array of species that no longer existed (although, as Conniff notes, Thomas Jefferson was convinced that mammoths probably still roamed the vast, largely unexplored West). The questions of the 18th century naturalists led to new ways of thinking, and to a rejection of long-held assumptions about the natural world. This in turn led to the 19th century’s theory of evolution.

In covering such a vast sweep of natural history, Conniff gives short shrift to many of the individual characters and their exploits. There is frustratingly little, for instance, about Charles Darwin‘s voyage on the HMS Beagle. But what Conniff does include is well worth reading, including an excellent analysis of the interaction between Alfred Russel Wallace (whom Conniff calls the greatest field biologist of the 19th century) and Darwin in developing a theory of evolution.

Whereas Darwin spent years collecting his thoughts about how species adapted and changed over time in response to their environments, Wallace came to many of the same conclusions in a burst of inspiration. In 1858, collecting specimens in the Spice Islands near Papua New Guinea, Wallace was forced to his bed with a bout of malaria. He spent the time reflecting on what he had observed in the field and, he later wrote, it “suddenly flashed upon me … in every generation the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain — that is the fittest would survive.”

Wallace quickly sketched out his ideas about how the survival of the fittest over time would cause the extinction of some species at the same time new ones emerged. When finished, he sent his ideas off to Darwin, with whom he had developed a correspondence.

Darwin was deeply shaken on receiving Wallace’s treatise. “All my originality,” he lamented in a note to a colleague, “whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.” Instead, his scientific friends moved swiftly to set up a joint presentation of the two men’s ideas before a meeting of London’s prestigious Linnean Society. In their introduction, Darwin’s colleagues made clear that while the two men had “independently and unknown to one another, conceived the same very ingenious theory,” Darwin, they let it be known, was the deeper thinker, the true theoretician who had first come to the ideas and developed them most thoroughly. The 1858 presentation caused surprisingly little stir. As Conniff notes, “The society’s president went home muttering about the lack of any ‘striking discoveries’ that year. And so began the greatest revolution in the history of science.”

Conniff’s book is filled with rogues and heroes, and their not infrequent overlapping explorations make for entertaining reading. The so-called Long expedition of 1819, the first government-sponsored exploration of the American West to include trained naturalists on the team, began mapping the tributaries of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers before starting overland to the Rockies. Thomas Say, one of America’s most skilled zoologists, led the expedition’s scientific mission, and it wasn’t always easy to convince his companions of the worth of his endeavors. At one point, bringing what he believed to be a new species of deer back to camp, he was forced to sketch it quickly before his hungry fellow explorers butchered it. He had wanted to take it back intact. Still, with his carefully documented field notes and specimens, he “was able to introduce America to some of its most iconic animals, among them, the coyote, the swift fox, the great plains wolf, the lazuli bunting and the orange-crowned larkspur.”

Say often found, however, that he had been beaten to the discovery of Western species “by a brilliant crackpot” named Constantine Rafinesque, who was everything Say despised in an amateur naturalist. He was slapdash and had little formal training, but he possessed a zeal for discovering and naming new species, and on more than one occasion Say carefully described what he believed to be something entirely new only to discover that Rafinesque had dashed off a far inferior report of the species previously.

In the end, the anecdotes Conniff tells, though often fragmented, are more effective than the narrative connecting them. Still, the stories are more than enough to make this ambitious book well worth reading.

It’s easy to think that the great discoveries have all been made, that the 18th century and 19th century naturalists, by arriving at the party first, got all the goodies. But Conniff dispels that notion. “[E]ven today,” he writes, “with the total of known species pushing 2 million, new species continue to turn up almost everywhere, at times much closer than most of us care to contemplate.” And with an estimated 50 million more species yet to be discovered, he says, “we still live in the great age of discovery.”

sue.horton@latimes.com

// <![CDATA[// // <![CDATA[// Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

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