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Giants in the Earth: How Mammoths Changed Our World

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 29, 2017

(Illustration: National Geographic)

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

Discovering the Mammoth is one of those books that make you wonder about the author as much as about his topic. John J. McKay writes that he got started with a single blog post aiming to establish “a chronology of what was known about mammoths and when.” Or rather, he got started because he noticed, while indulging his “great love of conspiracy theories and fringe ideas,” that “lost history theories”—think Atlantis, flood geology and rogue planets—“all used frozen mammoths as proof positive of their ideas.”

Mr. McKay, who describes himself on his blog as “an underemployed, grumpy, and aging liberal who lives in the Great Northwest”—that is, Alaska—soon began obsessively collecting facts about these great, hairy pachyderms. He became the “mammoth guy” to his neighbors and apparently also to his long-suffering (now ex-) wife.

The resulting book is unfortunately more the chronology that Mr. McKay set out to write in the first place and less the thrilling “Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science” touted in the subtitle. Mr. McKay’s background as a technical writer shows in his clear sentences, with one carefully authenticated fact logically following another from beginning to end. It also shows, however, in the absence of color, scene setting or a driving narrative arc. And yet I found the book oddly compelling.

Mr. McKay makes the case that, beginning about 1600, mammoths and their mastodon cousins, appearing in bits and pieces from beneath the ice and earth, became “a focusing problem for a scientific revolution.” They were the starting point for sweeping changes in geology and comparative anatomy and in the ways we think about life on Earth.

Scholars could reason their way around Read the rest of this entry »

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House of Lost Worlds: “Loved This Book! It’s All There”

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 30, 2016

Fire set to discourage an 1870 Peabody Museum fossil hunt in the American West.

Fire set to discourage an 1870 Peabody Museum fossil hunt in the American West.

House of Lost Worlds coverIt has been amazingly difficult to get the mainstream press to review House of Lost Worlds, unlike anything I have experienced with all my previous books.

Editors seem to make a snap judgement that it’s just the story of one museum, with no significance outside New Haven.  They do not know what they are missing.

Here’s how historian William Hosley reacted in a review on Facebook today:

Finished Richard Conniff‘s ‪#‎HouseofLostWorld‬s – a 150th anniversary story about Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Spellbound. Riveting. Best book on any aspect of museums I’ve ever read – and the history of museums is one of my favorite topics. Convinces me that Peabody is CT’s most important museum. If I was teaching a survey course on American History this would be on the syllabus. What a bold stroke to tell the story of an institution as

Read the rest of this entry »

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At Play in the Fields of Fliskets, Zant, and Fred

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 28, 2013

Jawsius charlottei (Illustration: Calene Luczo)

Jawseus charlottei (Illustration: Calene Luczo/http://www.luczoillustration.com/)

I happened to come across two lovely poems this morning about the challenge of naming the animals.  The first is by John Hollander.*

                                 Adam’s Task

And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field … GEN. 2:20

Thou, paw-paw-paw; thou, glurd; thou, spotted
Glurd; thou, whitestap, lurching through
The high-grown brush; thou, pliant-footed,
Implex; thou, awagabu.

Every burrower, each flier
Came for the name he had to give:
Gay, first work, ever to be prior,
Not yet sunk to primitive.

Thou, verdle; thou, McFleery’s pomma;
Thou; thou; thou—three types of grawl;
Thou, flisket; thou, kabasch; thou, comma-
Eared mashawk; thou, all; thou, all.

Were, in a fire of becoming,
Laboring to be burned away,
Then work, half-measuring, half-humming,
Would be as serious as play.

Thou, pambler; thou, rivarn; thou, greater
Wherret, and thou, lesser one;
Thou, sproal; thou, zant; thou, lily-eater.
Naming’s over. Day is done.

The second poem comes from Anthony Hecht, in roughly the same spirit:

                      Naming the Animals

Having commanded Adam to bestow
Names upon all the creatures, God withdrew
To empyrean palaces of blue
That warm and windless morning long ago,
And seemed to take no notice of the vexed
Look on the young man’s face as he took thought
Of all the miracles the Lord had wrought,
Now to be Read the rest of this entry »

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The Jabberwocky World

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 27, 2012

The March-April issue of Audubon magazine features this lovely illustration of a hydra, a monster from the Classical imagination, together with an excerpt from The Species Seekers, about the beginning of the age of discovery:

At the start, naturalists knew no more than a few thousand species, and often had the basic facts wrong. Even educated people still inhabited a jabberwocky world in which monsters abounded, and one species could slide uncertainly into another. Our own ancestors, just eight or ten generations ago, still thought that dog-headed humans lived in distant lands, probably based on early descriptions of baboons. When the fossil skeleton of a giant salamander turned up, a learned Swiss physician identified it as a sinner drowned in Noah’s Flood. Naturalists then could not even clearly distinguish some plants from animals and passionately debated whether one could transform into the other, and back again. (It’s a measure of the state of knowledge then that they thought of themselves simply as naturalists or “natural philosophers.” The words “scientist” and “biologist” did not yet exist.)

That would all change, as a small band of explorers set out to break through the mystery and confusion. The great age of discovery about the natural world was a period of less than 200 years, from the eighteenth century into the twentieth. It got its start in 1735, when the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus invented a system for identifying and classifying species. He was a charismatic teacher, both ribald and full of religious fervor for the wonders of the natural world. His words inspired 19 of his own students to undertake voyages of exploration. Half of these “apostles,” as he called them, would die overseas in the service of his mission. Explorers from other nations, also inspired by Linnaeus, soon followed, taking the hunt for new species to the farthest ends of the Earth. They made the discovery of species one of the most important and enduring achievements of the colonial era.That word “discovery” may stick momentarily in the modern reader’s craw. Local people had often known many of these “new” species for thousands of years and in far more intimate detail than any newcomer could hope to achieve. But done properly, the process of collecting a species and describing it in scientific terms made that knowledge available everywhere. Making it available in Europe was, to be sure, the primary objective. But in the process, the species seekers introduced humanity for the first time to our fellow travelers on this planet, from beetles to blue-footed boobies. And gradually we 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 among many species.

It would be difficult to overstate how profoundly the species seekers changed the world along the way. Many of us are alive today, for instance, because naturalists identified obscure species that later turned out to cause malaria, yellow fever, typhus, and other epidemic diseases. (This is one of the recurring lessons from the history of species discovery: Useless knowledge has an insidious way of leading people in useful directions. Many mothers would despair, for instance, to have a child make a career out of the study of Chinese horseshoe bats of the genus Rhinolophus. But the subject took on global importance when these bats turned out to be the source of SARS, or sudden acute respiratory syndrome, which threatened to become pandemic.)

The discovery of species also shifted the foundations of knowledge and belief. Though early species seekers typically set out to glorify God by celebrating his Creation, the paradoxical outcome of their work was Read the rest of this entry »

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“Thoroughly Entertaining Adventure Stories”

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 31, 2011

The TLS asked its reviewers to suggest their Best Books of the Year and Richard Fortey of the Natural History Museum in London named The Species Seekers.   Here’s what he had to say:

The Species Seekers by Richard Conniff (Norton). Ecotourists today expect to be whisked off to remote locations to enjoy intimate views of wildlife from purpose-built hides. But explorers and naturalists formerly risked their lives and their sanity in pursuit of exotic species. Their prize was the thrill of novelty: to be the first to name what are still referred to as “species new to science.” In the eighteenth and ninteenth centuries, explorers thought nothing of battling with malaria, starvation or shipwreck to bring home the prize of a beautiful but unnamed bird or butterfly. Richard Conniff provides a thoroughly entertaining series of adventure stories revealing these taxonomic heroes, amply peppered with tales of rogues and nadmen. Many of these scientists are as exotic as the species they sought to discover.

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On Becoming a Science Writer

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 9, 2011

It seems to me now that my entire science education consisted of one year, seventh grade, with Dr. Kowalski, who, among other ingenious assignments, had each of us purchase a whole chicken, strip it to the bone, and then reassemble the skeleton.

After that, I had a high school physics course taught by a summertime Good Humor Man, and a biology course taught by a newly-consecrated Irish Christian Brother, who found alm0st everything in biology deeply mortifying (and honestly who can blame him?). In college, I visited Science Hill just twice, first as a protester, and next for my job as a projectionist. I mostly studied poetry.

My turnabout came at the age of 25, when a magazine agreed to let me write about mosquitoes, and I suddenly found myself appalled and delighted by the incredible surgical tools in a mosquito’s proboscis. I also managed to work a poem (by D.H. Lawrence) into the story, a practice I have tried to indulge ever since.

Other stories about animals and behavior followed. Dr. Kowalski’s assignment even came back to me, when I found myself in Venezuela testing chicken caracasses on piranha populations, for my book Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals.  (They could be a lot quicker than me at the business of stripping a carcass to the bone.)

My advice to prospective science writers?

Marry money.

Sorry, just kidding. Read poetry. We need more people to recognize that the “two cultures” idea is bunk. And, really, take more science courses than I did. Lots more. I hear they are better now.

 

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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.,

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Gift Guide: Best of Science

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 19, 2011

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Jennie Erin Smith put together a gift guide for holiday reading.  It’s a nice list, not least because it includes The Species Seekers.  (One notable omission, for obvious reasons, was Smith’s own highly praised  Stolen World:  A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers and Skulduggery.)  Here are Smith’s recommendations:

What would our lives be like if we were as immersed in nature as we are in technology? Measurably better, says Richard Louv, whose 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods,” advanced the idea of a “nature-deficit disorder” afflicting young people. In The Nature Principle” (Algonquin, 317 pages, $24.95), Mr. Louv lays out a patchwork of scientific findings and personal anecdotes to contend that adults, too, suffer from what he defines as “an atrophied awareness, a diminished ability to find meaning in the life that surrounds us.”The good news, Mr. Louv says, is that it’s never too late to correct your NDD. Set up a bird feeder, join a hiking club, grow food locally, or plant a butterfly garden and you’re on your way to becoming a “high-performance human”—saner, leaner, longer-lived and more enterprising. Mr. Louv’s diagnosis rings true, but his prescriptions can sound shallow and fashionably “green.” Many proven, traditional avenues into lifelong engagement with nature—hunting, fishing, sketching, specimen collecting, journaling—are given little or no attention. There’s something beside the point, too, about Mr. Louv’s promotion of ¬nature-as-therapy, like saying that Zen meditation tones the inner thighs.

Might there be a deeper value in old-fashioned naturalist pursuits, something greater than the sum of their side effects? Several outstanding recent books argue unequivocally that there is.

In an essay collection titled The Way of Natural History” (Trinity, 204 pages, $45), a group of writers—mostly biologists but also poets, a guitarist, a Buddhist theologian and a former prisoner—discuss why they became naturalists and how they practice their craft. A surprising number got started as adults. One learned the ecology of Big Sur as a soldier, while stationed nearby; another took up birding to lessen the boredom of touring with his band. Most subscribe to the general idea of “nature-deficit disorder,” but the recommendations for reversing it are fairly rigorous compared with Mr. Louv’s.

To become a naturalist—that is, someone with “a working knowledge of a broad slice of the biota, and how the parts fit together with one another and their physical setting,” as contributor and butterfly expert Robert Michael Pyle explains it—requires copious reading and long days outdoors, exploring and observing. None of this will necessarily lower your cholesterol or make you a better executive, if that even matters. “Must any sort of practical justification really be invoked?” Mr. Pyle asks. “Isn’t it enough that the pursuit of deep natural history is one of the surest paths toward an entirely earthly state of enlightenment?”

For a sustained dose of inspiration toward that end, a would-be naturalist can fill a Kindle with enough 99-cent natural-history classics—by Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Henry Walter Bates and Alexander von Humboldt—to last years. Harder to find are the obscure gems of natural-history writing contained in “The Essential Naturalist” (Chicago, 534 pages, $39), a collection of lost or dimly remembered articles unearthed by the book’s assiduous editors.

A pirate, a rural French bug collector, a Soviet mineralogist and a Holy Roman Emperor count among this volume’s contributors. Prince Albert I of Monaco recalls an 1895 whale hunt in which he found himself “gripped down to the marrow” by the sight of the bleeding, suffering beast—until it conveniently vomited up some scientifically valuable giant squid. Ernst Mayer’s account of his youthful expedition to New Guinea in 1928 is studded with jarring references to its “primitive” and “inferior” natives.

The editors have struck many tables and statistics from the original articles, leaving a volume heavy with emotion, surprise and wonder. “The book of nature has no beginning, as it has no end,” advises contributor Jim Corbett, late hunter and photographer of man-eating tigers. “Open the book where you will, and at any period of your life … No matter how long or how intently you study the pages your interest will not flag, for in nature there is no finality.”

A fine companion to such a stimulating anthology is Richard Conniff’s The Species Seekers (Norton, 464 pages, $27.95), a rollicking group-biography of men and women who collected scientific specimens between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The awful fates of so many of these hardworking field naturalists—shot through with arrows, sickened by parasites, snubbed and slandered by envious museum curators—offer a sobering corrective to Mr. Louv’s prediction that a life engaged in nature will be healthier and more prosperous. And yet, like naturalists today, the species seekers were motivated most of all by “the sense of private joy in small moments of discovery,” Mr. Conniff says, which mitigated the “hunger, loneliness, disease and other hardships of field life.”

If you’re feeling inspired by now, another exceptional collection of essays, “Field Notes in Science and Nature” (Harvard, 297 pages, $27.95), offers practical tips for the born-again naturalist, who, after all, is useless without a notebook. Here biologists, geologists, anthropologists and scientific illustrators open notebooks from all stages of their lives, showing how they record and organize their observations. Some sketch, others paint, some combine graphs and cryptic scrawl making a glorious mess. The point is that their observations don’t go unrecorded and that many seemingly random notations, made during routine or aimless forays, have led to important discoveries. “If there is a heaven,” writes contributor E.O. Wilson, “I will ask for no more than an endless living world to walk through and explore. I will carry with me an inexhaustible supply of notebooks.”


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An Engrossing and Intriguing Read

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 14, 2011

A nice review for The Species Seekers just came in from the British magazine Real Travel.  With apologies for the illegible pdf, what it says is that the book is “an engrossing and intriguing read that’s sure to pique the interest of many a budding naturalist or historian in equal measure.”

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Howlers Amid the Howler Monkeys: Errata

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 7, 2011

A letter from reader Ron Pine, of the Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center at the University of Kansas, points out some errors in The Species Seekers.  I seem to have gotten caught on shifts in terminology over time, and I am publishing these corrections here for the benefit of other close readers.

Dear Richard:

Just the other day I bought a copy of The Species Seekers at a Barnes and Noble.  I’ve now finished it and it was a great and exceedingly informative read.  I especially enjoyed your book because I learned so much from it about numerous people who previously had been just names to me.
Just about every book that I read and that contains information about animals has a few errors or little misinterpretations.  Your book was remarkably free of these but I did notice a few.  I’m listing them here not to give you a hard time but because I thought that, for a variety of reasons, you might find it useful in future to know about them.  These are:
1.) Page 55–flying squirrels and cockatoos are mentioned as apparently being found in South America.  There are no cockatoos in the New World and no flying squirrels in South America.  (Perhaps these animals’ names got on your page 55 because Stedman incorrectly used them.)
2.)  Page 75–an illustration shows a shell identified as a Precious Wentletrap.  The shell depicted is actually a kind of harp shell, a dissimilar mollusk belonging to a different family than the wentletraps.
3.)  Page 231–a deer is mentioned as being kept as a pet in West Africa.  This animal could not have been a deer unless it was an imported exotic.  There are no native deer in subsaharan Africa. (Again, Savage may have called an antelope a deer.)
4.)  Page 245–here and, I think, elsewhere, alligators are written of as if they occur in South America.  Alligators are found only in the SE US and in China.  (Of course, Bates may have called them alligators.)
5.)  Page 281–Beetles of the genus Dermestes are referred to as darkling beetles.  The genus Dermestes is the type genus of the family Dermestidae.  Darkling beetles constitute the dissimilar family Tenebrionidae.
6.)  Pages 301-302–this one is complicated.  On page 301, Du Chaillu’s Potamogale is called an otter–specifically a “giant river otter.”  In fact, Potamogale is an animal that until recently was put in the order Insectivora, along with shrews, moles, hedgehogs, and the like.  It is now generally placed in the order Afrosoricida, which includes the African genus Micropotamogale, the African “golden moles,” and the tenrecs of Madagascar.  Otters belong to another order– the order Carnivora (cats, dogs, bears, weasels, seals, etc.).  The Giant River Otter, by the way, is an actual kind of otter that is restricted to South America.  Also on page 301, the genus Cynogale is referred to as an otter.  In fact, Cynogale is a kind of civet (family Viverridae), and not an otter (otters belong to the “weasel family” Mustelidae).  I’m assuming that Du Chaillu’s ignorance and confusion (and perhaps also Gray’s)  may have what caused you problems here, although that would not explain how the South American Giant River Otter got into the mix.
7.)–Page 316–in the discussion of the “golden monkey,” it is stated that previously known monkeys were restricted to the tropics.  In fact, the first monkey to ever come to the notice of any European must have been the temperate-zone inhabiting Barbary Macaque of North Africa, which was named by Linnaeus and known to the ancients.  Other monkeys (certain langurs and macaques) that range up into the temperate zone of Asia were also named before  the “golden monkey,” but I’m a bit vague on how much of the more northern portions of their range was known to their describers.
8.)–Page 375– the striped rabbit referred to as an “almost surreal”  new species was actually not all that special.  It was the second striped rabbit to be named in the striped rabbit genus Nesolagus.  The first one was named in 1880.  You say that it was named from the Mekong Delta, but my understanding is that it comes from the Annamite Mountain region well to the north of there.
Best regards,

Ron

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