Someone Went Hungry. Someone Died. Someone Rejoiced.
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 7, 2011
Fyrefly’s Book Blog posted a very kind review of The Species Seekers today. She starts out with a quote that explains what the book is about much better than I have been doing lately. I apparently wrote the quote on p. 334, but time flies and memory with it:
“It is the subtext to those endless drawers of carefully arranged specimens in museums around the world: Someone had collected each specimen; killed it; skinned it; stuffed it, set it, or put it in preservative; pencil-scratched a label for it; carried it cross-country; shipped it home; studied it; and classified it – and then repeated this ritual over and over, countless millions of times. For each specimen, someone had gone hungry and sleepless. Someone alone in a remote and hostile territory had wept. Someone had perhaps drowned, been murdered, suffered malaria, yellow fever, dysentery, or typhus. Someone had certainly cursed and complained, though not so much as we might expect. Someone had said, “Hunh!” And someone had rejoiced.”
Here’s part of the review (I think the reviewer’s name is Nicki):
I’ve had a growing interest in the history of science, particularly as it relates to exploration, for a while now, and The Species Seekersdid a really excellent job of putting a lot of the bits and pieces that I’ve acquired from other books into a broader context. This book’s got the perfect balance of breadth and depth; Conniff brings a number of key figures in natural history to life through chapter-long mini-biographies, but is also always careful to keep each person’s story in its relevant social and scientific setting. I also found the timeline very easy to keep straight; I often have trouble when history books jump backwards and forwards through time, but in this case Conniff keeps things mostly linear, and is very good at providing callbacks to previous chapters when necessary.
The writing is also a nice blend, using plenty of historical sources while remaining lively and engaging. It’s also full of great anecdotes, and I wound up learning more than I was expecting to. I was familiar with Linneas and Cuvier and Darwin and Wallace, of course, but there were a lot of other names that I’d heard in passing but didn’t know the story behind – Bates, of Batesian mimicry, for one – and plenty more cases where the people and stories Conniff included were new to me. There were also a lot of fun trivia facts. For example, even though chimps and gorillas are the most familiar non-human apes today, for a long time, all apes were referred to as “orangs,” because the Dutch East India Company meant that Malaysia and Borneo were explored long before Africa was. I also liked the idea that the budding study of human parasitology helped ease the acceptance of evolutionary theory, since people were uncomfortable with the idea that God purposefully created things like liver flukes and roundworms to torment them. And, my favorite: based on the tooth shape (which is all early scientists had to go on), mammoths were originally assumed to be carnivorous, and Thomas Jefferson wrote lengthy descriptions of rampaging mammoths wreaking havoc on an unsuspecting herd of bison and doing battle with twelve-foot-tall lions (based on the claw of what would turn out to be a giant ground sloth).
The reviewer also has a few very reasonable caveats. But feel free to skip them (I may be prejudiced) and take a look at the entertaining feature on vocabulary from the book. I believe in plain words, preferably short. But apparently I quote some whoppers.,