The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earthby Richard Conniff
The story of bold adventurers who risked death to discover strange life forms in the farthest corners of planet Earth.Beginning with Linnaeus, a colorful band of explorers made it their mission to travel to the most perilous corners of the planet and bring back astonishing new life forms. They attracted followers ranging from Thomas Jefferson, who laid out/p>… See more details below
The story of bold adventurers who risked death to discover strange life forms in the farthest corners of planet Earth.Beginning with Linnaeus, a colorful band of explorers made it their mission to travel to the most perilous corners of the planet and bring back astonishing new life forms. They attracted followers ranging from Thomas Jefferson, who laid out mastodon bones on the White House floor, to twentieth-century doctors who used their knowledge of new species to conquer epidemic diseases. Acclaimed science writer Richard Conniff brings these daredevil "species seekers" to vivid life. Alongside their globe-spanning tales of adventure, he recounts some of the most dramatic shifts in the history of human thought. At the start, everyone accepted that the Earth had been created for our benefit. We weren't sure where vegetable ended and animal began, we couldn't classify species, and we didn't understand the causes of disease. But all that changed as the species seekers introduced us to the pantheon of life on Earth—and our place within it.
Nature writer Conniff (Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals, 2009, etc.) chronicles the obsessions and joys of naturalists who, in the 18th and 19th centuries, fanned out across the globe in pursuit of new species.
"For that sense of private joy in small moments of discovery," writes the author, these adventurers and scientists willingly braved "hunger, loneliness, disease and other hardships of field life." Collectively, their discoveries contributed a body of knowledge that laid the ground for Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). A century earlier, Carolus Linnaeus' classification scheme helped systematize the new knowledge, although the discovery of strange fossils challenged his belief in the Bible (e.g., five-pound teeth of extinct mammoths found in the American colonies). George Washington's private collection included one, and Thomas Jefferson referenced them to refute claims that New World species were stunted because the supposedly inhospitable climate. Darwin's evolutionary theory of natural selection challenged contemporary notions of man's special relationship to God and suggested the alarming notion that humans had evolved from an orangutan. When Linnaeus published the 1758 edition ofSystema Naturae, he listed 4,400 species; at the end of the 19th century, 415,600 were known. "But even today," writes Conniff, "with the total of known species pushing 2 million, new species continue to turn up almost everywhere in the modern world." The author considers these continued discoveries to be "a broad triumph of the human mind," and his enthusiasm for his subject and admiration of these explorers is infectious.
An entertaining survey of a well-worked field that should go nicely alongside the raft of books published for the 2009 Darwin bicentennial.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Meet the Author
Richard Coniff, a Guggenheim Fellow and winner of the National Magazine Award, writes for Smithsonian and National Geographic and is a frequent commentator on NPR's All Things Considered and a guest columnist for the New York Times. His books include The Natural History of the Rich, Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time, and The Species Seekers. He lives in Old Lyme, Connecticut.
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Conniff does an excellent job of weaving together history, scientific philosophy, and the characters who sought new species. His account is quite enlightening and underscores the importance of taxonomic research, often denigrated as "stamp collecting," for assessing and understanding biodiversity and the many significant, practical applications of this work. Highly recommended for all readers.