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  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Archive for June, 2012

A Democratic American Science (A Glorious Enterprise–Part 2)

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 28, 2012

Peale was a showman for his museum

Philadelphia was already home, in 1812, to the American Philosophical Society, dedicated by Benjamin Franklin to all studies “that let Light into the Nature of Things, tend to increase the Power of Man over Matter, and multiply the Conveniencies or Pleasures of Life.”  The Philadelphia Museum was also thriving then, with the entrepreneurial artist Charles Willson Peale displaying portraits of great American patriots and specimens of great American wildlife side by side.

The founders of the Academy meant to set themselves apart by focusing exclusively on the natural world, not culture or the arts.  And they wanted to do scholarly work, avoiding the kind of promotional hoopla Peale sometimes indulged in to attract paying customers.  The Academy was also determined to be democratic.  Whereas the American Philosophical Society drew its members from the elite (including 15 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence), the Academy’s founders were local businessmen and immigrants drawn together by a single idea: “We are lovers of science.”  They resolved that their organization would be “perpetually exclusive of political, religious and national partialities, antipathies, preventions and prejudices.”   This was no doubt wishful thinking.   As at most such institutions then, the Academy’s membership was entirely white and male, until the widow of one of the founders was admitted in 1841.  And even brotherhood would prove elusive.  (One founder was soon describing another as a “hot headed eccentric Irishman” and “some what crack brained.”)

Thomas Say

But the founders of the Academy were at least sincere in wanting to develop a proper American science for understanding and describing the riches of the still largely unexplored continent.  The time will arrive,” wrote Thomas Say, the intellectual force behind the Academy in its early years, “when we shall no longer be indebted to the men of foreign countries, for a knowledge of any of the products of our own soil, or for our opinions in science.” Say himself would become the father of American entomology, describing roughly 1400 insect species in his lifetime, including many of critical economic importance in agriculture.

Say would also become the first trained naturalist to visit the American West, as chief scientist on the Long Expedition of 1819-20, and he provided the first descriptions of many now beloved species there, from the swift fox to the Lazuli bunting—and also of many insects.  At one point, Say recounted how he was seated with a Kansa chieftain, “in the presence of several hundred of his people assembled to view the arms, equipment, and appearance of the party,” when a darkling beetle came scurrying out from among the feet of the crowd.  Diplomatic dignity wrestled briefly with the passion for species.  Then Say went plunging after the beetle and impaled it on a pin, for which the astonished Kansa admiringly dubbed him a medicine man.

Back home in Philadelphia, studying insects was more likely to attract “the ridicule of the inconsiderate,” as Say ruefully admitted.  But another of his discoveries, the mosquito species Anopheles quadrimaculatus, would turn out, long after his death, to be the chief carrier of “ague,” or malaria.  And identifying this culprit would become the key to eliminating a plague that routinely killed Americans from the Gulf Coast as far north as Boston and the Great Lakes.


Posted in New Species Discoveries | Leave a Comment »

A Glorious Enterprise–Part 1

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 27, 2012

The Philadelphia Hadrosaur

Though some of its counterparts are bigger and better known, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia is the oldest natural history institution in the New World.  It is currently marking its 200th anniversary with an exhibition “The Nature of Discovery,” on display through next March.   Its colorful history is also the subject of a lavishly illustrated new book, A Glorious Enterprise (University of Pennsylvania Press), co-authored by Peck and historian Patricia Tyson Stroud, with photographs by Rosamund Purcell.  And I am marking the occasion with this article on some of the Academy’s accomplishments.

In November 1868, without fanfare or even much thought to how the public might respond, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia opened its doors on one of the most sensational museum displays ever.  It was the world’s first nearly-complete dinosaur skeleton, discovered 10 years earlier in Haddonfield, New Jersey, and it was the first life-like dinosaur mount anywhere.

Hadrosaurus foulkii stood on its hind legs and towered more than two stories tall.  So many people showed up to gape at this astonishing monster that the Academy’s scientists, distracted from their studies, complained about “the excessive clouds of dust produced by the moving crowds,” not to mention broken glass and battered woodwork.  It was the beginning of dinosaur-mania in North America, and it changed the way museums everywhere would re-create the lost world of extinct species.

The Academy might have preferred to go about its work more quietly.  But it was by then accustomed to playing an important part in the history of the nation, and of science. Philadelphia considered itself “the Athens of America” in 1812, the year that a small band of naturalists met at the home of a local apothecary to found the Academy.  That it happened in the war year 1812 was “no coincidence,” says Robert Peck, a curator at the Academy.  “The United States was declaring our independence politically and economically again, and we were declaring our intellectual independence for the first time.”  Founding the Academy meant founding a democratic American science, the equal of its old world counterparts but without the elitist trappings.  The Academy would also have its own journal, so our scientists “would not have to run to Europe to have their discoveries vetted.”    It would be intellectually rigorous, but also inexpensively printed, so working people like the founders themselves could afford to read it.

In the decades that followed, the Academy would help shape the character of the American nation.  Its scientists helped plan and carry out the early exploration of the American West, founded and largely established the science of ornithology in America, served as the seed bed (albeit reluctantly) for Robert Owen’s utopian community at New Harmony, Indiana, became the center of scientific racism in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and fought one side in the brutal dinosaur “bone wars” of the late nineteenth century.  It counted Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin as corresponding members, was frequented by Edgar Allan Poe, and in the twentieth century gave the world that dashing British spy James Bond–or at least his namesake.  (Novelist Ian Fleming, a weekend birder in Jamaica, borrowed the name from the author of the field guide Birds of the West Indies, because it sounded suitably Anglo-Saxon.  He later gave a copy of one of his books to the original James Bond, an ornithologist at the Academy, signed, “To the real James Bond, from the thief of his identity.”)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Unlikely Friendship?

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 26, 2012

I was just loving this photo from Emilie Genty.  Then those damned Facebook commenters had to point out that the toad is dead and probably intended as dinner.  Alternatively, there is a youtube video of a chimp using a toad as a sex toy.

Either way, probably a good thing National Geographic isn’t showing the next few frames in this series.  Photographer Genty, by the way, is a post-doc at the University of St. Andrews, researching vocal and gestural communication among bonobo chimps.

Posted in Cool Tools | 3 Comments »

David Douglas

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 25, 2012

Today’s the birthday of the pioneering Scottish botanist David Douglas (1799-1834), from whom the Douglas fir gets its common name.

On an 1824 expedition to North America, he described the sitka spruce, Ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, and many other species, at one point writing home to his sponsor, “You will think I manufacture pines at my pleasure.”

On a later expedition to Hawaii, he died, age 35, when he fell into a pit dug by the islanders to trap wild cattle.  He was trapped with a bull that also fell into the pit and it gored him to death.

Posted in The Species Seekers | Leave a Comment »

A Sign of Stupidity

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 21, 2012

I saw this billboard recently while driving in Northern Virginia.  You would think that someone in the extermination business would know that the animal in the middle (“…ugh!”) is not in fact a “bug” at all.

It’s a spider.  (“Lemme see, oh yeah, eight legs.”)

And spiders generally do a better job than exterminators at getting rid of insect  pests.

Maybe that’s why they want to kill them?

Posted in Biodiversity | 2 Comments »

Murder and the Immortal Exine

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 20, 2012

Pollen (photo by Endless Forms Most Beautiful)

The first time police used pollen to solve a crime was in Austria in 1959. A forensic scientist studying the mud on a murder suspect’s boot found what turned out to be a 20-million-year-old pollen grain from a hickory tree. That species no longer grew in Austria then. But investigators were able to locate a Miocene sediment outcrop on the Danube River, from which such a pollen grain could have become recycled into the environment.

“We know you killed him,” they told the murder suspect, in the best police procedural fashion, “and we know where.” Then they took him to the outcrop. The suspect was so unnerved that he led them straight to the victim’s grave.

Pollen analysis is still surprisingly rare in U.S. courtrooms, though such cases have made it commonplace in some other countries. Even in the “CSI” era, Americans tend not to think about it much, other than as a cause of hay fever. Certainly no one grows up wanting to be a pollen scientist. Even experts in the field have a curious tendency to explain that they came to pollen only by accident and somehow got hooked. It’s as if they fear that outsiders might otherwise think them congenitally dull.

But for an impressive, if less sensational, variety of purposes other than forensics, pollen analysis has become a standard tool: Government agencies analyze the pollen content of fake Viagra and other prescription drugs to Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

When Civilizations Collapse: Conclusion

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 19, 2012

The dig at Tell Leilan

The Khabur River rises in Turkey and then flows south through eastern Syria, parallel to its border with Iraq, before joining the Euphrates. Harvey Weiss first arrived there in 1978 as a young archaeologist at Yale. He recalls being impressed by the harvested wheat stacked in “huge mounds” at the train station—“You don’t see that sort of thing growing up in Queens”—and it immediately struck him how productive unirrigated, rain-fed “dry farming” could be.

His focus was on the site now called Tell Leilan. Even before the height of the Akkadian empire almost 5,000 years ago, it grew from a rural village into one of the most important cities in northern Mesopotamia. The city walls from that era still rise above the Khabur Plains, enclosing almost a square kilometer of the ancient metropolis. The excavations Weiss directed revealed construction during the same period of grain storage and administrative facilities for collecting and shipping barley and wheat. Agriculture was being “commodified” and “imperialized” to support a central government or a distant imperial force. It was the ancient equivalent of the French train station.

But around 2200 B.C., both the major Khabur Plains settlements and the Akkadian Empire suddenly collapsed. The next 300 years have left their mark on Tell Leilan in the form of a thick deposit of wind-blown sand, with no architecture and hardly any trace of human habitation. Those centuries also survive in a desolate contemporary poem long thought to be a fictional account of the divine wrath that ended the empire:

For the first time since cities were built and founded,
The great agricultural tracts produced no grain,
The inundated tracts produced no fish,
The irrigated orchards produced neither wine nor syrup,
The gathered clouds did not rain…

In a 1993 article in Science, Weiss proposed, in effect, that the poem was nonfiction. The gods were, of course, no more to blame than were Ottoman bureaucrats in more recent centuries. But the ancient agricultural collapse was real, and the cause was Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

When Civilizations Collapse

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 18, 2012

For the past 30 years, midway through the drive from his expedition living quarters in Qahtaniyah to his archeological excavation at Tell Leilan in northeastern Syria, Harvey Weiss has contemplated the enigma of a railroad station. French colonial authorities built the modest two-story structure, along with a railroad to the Mediterranean Sea, shortly after World War I, and everything about it belongs in rural France—the hipped roof, the multipaned casement windows, the interior post-and-beam timbers. It is the architecture of empire, writ small.

For Weiss, though, the train station has come to tell a larger story about climate change and human adaptation to it (or failure to adapt)over thousands of years. The French built it, he explained recently, to pull out the cereal harvest of the Khabur Plains, the most fertile rain-fed agricultural area in northern Mesopotamia, and it still serves that function. At harvest time, the 100-kilo sacks of wheat are piled high there, awaiting shipment to market.

But why was the Khabur region barren and largely abandoned for hundreds of years before the French arrived? “Why do all the 18th- and 19th-century travel accounts indicate that the region was empty?” asked Weiss. “And what is the meaning of that abandonment for the Ottoman economy and the historical problem of Ottoman decline?” Other scholars have argued for the past 50 or more years that provincial administrators in the declining centuries of the empire were corrupt, inefficient and unable to maintain law and order, allowing the region to be abandoned despite its high productivity and its tax value for the central government. “The argument being,” Weiss added, “that there were no environmental and certainly no climate reasons for the abandonment.”

The alternative answer, in the title of a paper just published by Weiss and his French co-authors in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may seem unsurprising: “Drought is a recurring challenge in the Middle East.” But it has been the subject of bloody academic combat ever since Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Drawing the Line Between Science and Religion

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 11, 2012

This is an interesting criticism of The Species Seekers, on the grounds that I fail to draw a sufficiently sharp line between evolutionary knowledge and religious belief.  It’s from a curiously named blog–the new ussr illustrated: assorted reflections from the urbane society for sceptical romantics.  I’ll let the writer have his say, and respond afterward:

I’m very much enjoying Richard Conniff’s book The Species Seekers: Heroes, fools and the mad pursuit of life on Earth, not only for its well-told anecdotes of an intrepid era but also for its genuine insights into the competitive, gentlemanly and class-riven pursuit of specimens in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in Britain. It includes the hate-hate relationship between the two giants of eighteenth century biology, the great taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus and the more sceptical and polymathic Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon; the snobbish anti-continental attitude to the ideas of Lamarck; the too-good-to-be-true modesty of the Reverend Thomas S Savage, the ‘first identifier’ of the gorilla, and the delicate issue of priority in the matter of Darwin and Wallace’s ideas, obviously the most important ideas, in respect of species, in the history of biology. I’ve already read quite a few versions of this famous matter, having read Peter Raby’s biography of Wallace, and biographical works on Darwin by Rebecca Stott, David Quammen and others. Conniff’s brief treatment does well to capture the intricate play of class, hierarchy and deference involved. After discussing the occasionally offhand treatment of Wallace, and his sometime partner in specimen-collecting, Henry Walter Bates, by the aristocratic geologist Charles Lyell, he goes on to make this nice point:

From a modern perspective, though, Wallace had class issues of his own, like almost all field naturalists. In their book The Bird Collectors, Barbara and Richard Mearns celebrate the unsung contributions to science by native collectors, and they single out the ornithologist Frederick Jackson for the appropriateness of his response when a species was named Jackson’s Weaver [Ploceus jacksoni] in his honour: ‘Little credit is due to me for having brought this new species to light, as the specimen was brought to me by a little Taveita boy, tied by the legs along with several other of the common yellow species’.

Wallace, despite being far more egalitarian than most intellectuals of his time, didn’t always make such acknowledgements.

But I want here to focus on a little quibble I have with Conniff on the not-so-little matter of the science-religion relationship. That’s to say, compatibilism. It’s long-standing issue and I’ve written on it many times before, but it keeps on bobbing up as an eyesore. Here’s Conniff’s take on it, which is essentially the same as that of the USA’s NCSE [National Centre for Science Education] and AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science]. That’s to say, religion is compatible with science, because, hey, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, The Species Seekers | 1 Comment »