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Richard Conniff – The Species Seekers

December 7, 2011

148. The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff (2011)

Length: 464 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, History of Science

Started: 09 November 2011
Finished: 14 November 2011

Where did it come from? From W. W. Norton for review.
Why do I have it? I’ve been on a mini history of science/age of explorers kick for the past year or so, so this seemed right up my alley.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 31 October 2011.

Finding new species
has been a passion for more
than two hundred years.

Summary: “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.” – p. 334.

As suggested by the the quote above, The Species Seekers is the story of the great explosion in natural history, science, worldwide exploration, and species discovery that started in the 1700s with Linneaus and continues to this day. The focus is not so much on the science as on the people involved, those who travelled to the ends of the earth to bring home crates of pinned specimens, and those at home who pored over these treasures in an attempt to bring a sense of order to the vast spans of biodiversity with which the world presented them.

Review: I was expecting to really enjoy this book, just based on its topic, and Conniff didn’t disappoint. I’ve had a growing interest in the history of science, particularly as it relates to exploration, for a while now, and The Species Seekers did 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).

I did have a few points where I wasn’t quite as satisfied as I could have been, however. Primarily, I thought that more time could have been spent discussing the conservation implications of the vast number of specimens that were collected (read: killed) in the name of natural history. Conniff mentions this, of course, but fairly briefly, and I think it’s a serious enough issue to merit more space. He also focuses mostly on collectors of living species, rather than fossils (although Mary Anning does get a mention), which I thought was a shame… but that’s probably another separate book on its own. For all of the topics that Conniff does cover, however, he covers them in a way that is engaging and totally fascinating. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: This would be great for history of science or natural history buffs, obviously, but I think it’d also be of interest for people interested in the history of exploration more generally.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: At the height of the Battle of Alcañiz on May 23, 1809, as he was about to give the order for a desperate charge by French troops into the center of the Spanish line, Col. P.F.M.A. Dejean happened to glance down.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 108: “In recovering this tumultuous past, “Cuvier was also building his own myth,” presenting himself “like the demiurge of a new creation who could ‘burst the limits of time’ and ‘by observations . . . rediscover the history of the world and the succession of events that preceded the birth of the human species.'”” – a supernatural being imagined as creating or fashioning the world in subordination to the Supreme Being.
  • p. 115: “A bit more pragmatically, the Western Engineer also carried a painting of a white man and an Indian shaking hands, and another of the calumet, or long pipe, of peace.” – a long-stemmed, ornamented tobacco pipe used by North American Indians on ceremonial occasions, especially in token of peace.
  • p. 126: “But it would also inevitably balkanize the natural world into esoteric specialties presided over by narrowly focused experts.” – to divide (a country, territory, etc.) into small, quarrelsome, ineffectual states.
  • p. 143: “When he was keeper of zoology at the British Museum around 1820, William Elford Leach made a reputation “for certain peculiar eccentricities and crochets,” as a history of the museum later put it, “mixed up in close union with undoubted learning and skill.”” – a highly individual and usually eccentric opinion or preference
  • p. 207: “Nature abounded in “wonderful adumbrations of divine truths,” she wrote, and the metamorphosis of a grub into a dragonfly – clambering up from its dark underwater world, sprouting wings, and lifting off into the heavenly light – provided a scientific basis for belief in the afterlife of the human soul.” – an outline or sketch.
  • p. 229: “Savage was the key to the discovery, in the right place and with the right background to recognize from a single skull the existence of the largest primate on Earth, a creature Richard Owen would later describe as “the most portentous & diabolical caricature of humanity that an atrabilious poet ever conceived or a naturalist ever realized.”” – gloomy; morose; melancholy; morbid OR irritable; bad-tempered; splenetic.
  • p. 341: “She appears in a painting from the period with her geological hammer in hand. But she is also covered head to toe in a voluminous cloak much like a chador.” – the traditional garment of Muslim and Hindu women, consisting of a long, usually black or drab-colored cloth or veil that envelops the body from head to foot and covers all or part of the face.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2011 10:17 am

    Ooh. This sounds like something I’d really enjoy. It IS a shame that he doesn’t go into the conservation implications in more detail, though. I always have to suppress a shudder when I see Victorian collections at museums.

    • December 8, 2011 9:49 am

      Nymeth – What always bothers me more than museum collections were university teaching collections. There’d be an entire gallon jar of some species of frog or lizard, and those were just the specimens that were not good enough to make it into the research collection.

  2. December 7, 2011 10:47 am

    This sounds really interesting. It is not a subject I ever read much about despite an interest in it. I should remedy that…

    • December 8, 2011 9:50 am

      Kailana – The Species Seekers would be a good place to start! It’s a really quite comprehensive overview, and very readable.

  3. December 7, 2011 11:31 am

    I can see that as the perfect book for you, but I don’t think it’s for me.

    • December 8, 2011 9:52 am

      Kathy – Different strokes, eh? I suppose I can understand that not everyone is passionately excited about natural history, although I can’t quite understand why not. I mean, it’s so neat! :-D

  4. December 7, 2011 4:32 pm

    See, this is EXACTLY the sort of thing I’d like. I love history of exploration stuff! :D


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