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The Species Seekers: “A Delightful Book”

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 3, 2012

Just in time for the holidays, Australia’s science magazine Cosmos has published a review calling The Species Seekers “a delightful book … compelling for its human stories, anecdotes and well-woven storylines.”

“OUR PERFECT NATURALIST,” Charles Kingsley wrote in 1855, “should be strong in body; able to haul a dredge, climb a rock, turn a boulder, walk all day… be able on occasion to fight for his life.”

Kingsley later lampooned the naturalists he so romantically described, in his children’s book The Water Babies, which features Professor Ptthmllnsprts, who collected new species, and, yes, put them all in spirits.

The 19th century saw a revival of interest in the natural world that pulled at the marrow of a set of (mostly) men who dedicated their lives to collecting, labelling, storing and studying the bewildering diversity of life on Earth. They were “fired with a longing” to explore the “romantic land where all the birds and animals were of the museum varieties”, according to the account of one anonymous explorer in Richard Conniff’s rich and fascinating book.

From Wallace to Darwin, and U.S. founding father Thomas Jefferson to brilliant, ruthless anatomist and anti-Darwinist Richard Owen, the 19th-century species seekers were a fascinating cohort of explorers and scientists, showmen and geeks. Darwin would muse over a “wonderfully developed” barnacle penis lying “coiled up, like a great worm”, while ever-active Alfred Wallace “trembled with excitement” as he saw a particularly spectacular butterfly “come majestically toward me”.

Even the more prosaic Charles Willson Peale, the entrepreneurial father of the museum, said his “heart jumped with joy” at procuring a particularly impressive and almost complete mastodon skeleton, which he paraded around the streets to entice the eager public to view his collection.

This is a delightful book from a seasoned and skilful writer, compelling for its human stories, anecdotes and well-woven storylines and its retelling of a golden age of science.

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