The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth

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Overview

“This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story.”—Wall Street Journal
From the mid-eighteenth century to the early twentieth, a colorful band of amateur naturalists explored the most perilous corners of the planet to discover new life-forms. Amid globe-spanning tales of adventure, Richard Conniff recounts a dramatic historical shift, as humans finally discovered the pantheon of life on Earth-and our place within it.

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The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth

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Overview

“This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story.”—Wall Street Journal
From the mid-eighteenth century to the early twentieth, a colorful band of amateur naturalists explored the most perilous corners of the planet to discover new life-forms. Amid globe-spanning tales of adventure, Richard Conniff recounts a dramatic historical shift, as humans finally discovered the pantheon of life on Earth-and our place within it.

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Editorial Reviews

BBC Focus
“A swashbuckling romp…brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era.”
New Scientist
“An enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes.”
Outside Magazine
“An anecdotal romp through the strange history of naturalism. Absurd characters, exciting discoveries, and fierce rivalries abound.”
Christian Science Monitor
“[Conniff] chronicles two centuries of adventure, and at the same time illustrates important developments in human thought.”
Carl Zimmer
“Modern biology and medicine would not be what they are today if not for the death-defying naturalists who set out to travel the world and find new species. In The Species Seekers, Richard Conniff creates a marvelous rogues’ gallery of these brave, sometimes reckless heroes of taxonomy, full of surprising tales of gorillas, platypuses, and disease-laden mosquitoes.”
Bernd Heinrich
“A marvelous tribute to the age of wonder.”
Publishers Weekly
Until about 1834, the word "scientist" didn't exist. According to naturalist Conniff (Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time), it was likely at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science) where a member, following the model of "artist" and "atheist," coined a new term--"scientist" reflecting the transition of the nascent study of plants and animals from self-educated hobbyists to a new breed of professional. The author blows the fusty dust of centuries off an exhaustive bibliography of almost 300 books, many published in the 1800s. Conniff tells a fresh story that begins with Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus's creation of a species classification system in 1735, through Darwin's development of the theory of evolution--and of how, then as now, it was a challenge to religious orthodoxy--to the present as new species continue to be discovered, including in this decade a striped rabbit in the Mekong Delta. Conniff's parade of pioneers whose colorful exploits are recounted is at times overwhelming, but this history of the "great age of discovery" is spellbinding. (Nov.)
Wall Street Journal
“This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story.”
Kirkus Reviews

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393341324
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/7/2011
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 626,207
  • Product dimensions: 8.26 (w) x 5.54 (h) x 1.13 (d)

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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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 13, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Great Adventure and History

    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.

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