Biologists and laypeople alike have repeatedly claimed victory over life. A thousand years ago we thought we knew almost everything, a hundred years ago, too. But even today, Rob Dunn argues, discoveries we can't yet imagine still await us. More is unknown than known, whether about our bodies or the bottom of the sea.
In a series of vivid portraits of scientists as interesting as the mysteries they chase, Dunn introduces the reader to breakthroughs that have changed the world and others that might still. With poetry and humor, Dunn reminds readers how tough and exhilarating it is to study the natural world, and why it matters.
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About the Author
Rob Dunn is an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University and the author of several books, including Every Living Thing. A rising star in popular-science journalism, he writes for National Geographic, Natural History, Scientific American, BBC Wildlife, and Seed magazine. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with many thousands of wild species, including at least one species of mite living on his head.
Read an Excerpt
Every Living Thing
Man's Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys
What We All Used to Know
Just a few tens of thousands of years ago, we all lived in Africa. For most of human history and prehistory, we lived in small, illiterate communities. We began in the savannas where we foraged and hunted. We collected the animals and plants and named what we found. Slowly at first, some individuals or communities left on foot, following game or chance, or maybe just fleeing other people. They traveled along routes about which we continue to speculate. With time, they forgot where they had been. They carried no record of their past with them, beyond what survived in myth. Any story or name not mentioned in a lifetime disappeared.
Every year the front line of villages moved farther out. It was a slow wave of bodies and livelihoods. Individuals in that front line found, with each move, new animals, new plants, and more generally, new life. Collectively, humanity revealed pieces of the story of life. Because nothing was written and languages, as we spread, diverged, each discovery was local, each lesson learned repeatedly. Communities landed on the new landscape like a reader landing on a random page in a book. They found themselves surrounded by but a few paragraphs of something much larger. They set about translating those paragraphs. In each place, on each page, people would have to give names not only to all the wild beasts, but also to the plants, the fungi, the beetles, and the ants, and anything else that was to be used, avoided, or simply discussed. On these organisms and their new names they hung knowledge, stories, and belief.
That was the first great wave of discovery. It is a forgotten part of our scientific story. Long before Columbus or Magellan, much of the world had been found. Seldom do we consider what those first great explorers in small, fire-lit communities understood of Earth.
While drinking an espresso and readingPeople magazine, it is hard to imagine our kin ever ate shoots and leaves, that they ever knew most of the animals and plants by name.We look out now and see pigeons. We see the nameless green of the trees, and of the unclassifiable weeds among the sidewalk cracks. Insects bat at our screens and we swat them without partiality. We imagine now that the "natives" (of no relation to us) were ignorant or at least simple, but a few generations ago, we were "those people." We all lived in small communities, hunted, and foraged. We shat in the woods.
Clear views of how we once lived and what we once knew are illusive. History has left us potsherds and ruins, but little in the way of records of the knowledge our ancestors had of the species around them. Contemporary communities where people gather and hunt or even farm can, however, be models of parts of the past. In many such communities, people still record little, know mostly what they have heard and remember, and name new things they find. As long as we are careful to remember that they are also, in important ways, different from ancient communities, we can use these contemporary communities to understand aspects of how life might have been in the past. In these communities, we can find something of who we once were. Having a measure of what we once were and knew is necessary if we are to understand how far we have come and how far we might go.
One could go almost anywhere in the world to find communities of people living off the land in ways that require traditional oral knowledge of the species around them, knowledge our ancestors would have needed. I started in Cavinas, Bolivia. The road to Cavinas is long and in most places not a road at all, but instead a river or a footpath. To get to Cavinas our first big step would be to get to Riberalta, the biggest city in the northern Bolivian Amazon.
To get to Riberalta, my wife Monica and I flew to Santa Cruz, Bolivia. From Santa Cruz, we took a bus to Trinidad, a sleepy town at the southern edge of Bolivia's great, flooded Amazonian savannas. From Trinidad, we took the long bus north. We were traveling in what was to be the dry season, but the water had not yet drained out of the land. The floods still clung to grasses, forest and, as would soon be relevant, to the roads.
The going was slow. A bus ride that was to take one day took several. Mosquitoes flew in the windows, fed on us, and flew back out. The heat came in and stayed. Day came and was replaced by night, once, twice, and then a third time. For several days, the bus passed through what remains largely unbroken forest and savanna, a landscape populated with a billion insects, a dozen primate species, caimans, anacondas, and the occasional forlorn cow. During that journey, the bus made a single planned stop (in a one-hut town majestically named Sheraton). Of course, that excludes the stops for flat tires, broken axles (fixed with rope), and a six-hour period during which the driver of the bus tried to get it unstuck by hitching it to horses, cows, and then, all at once, a truck, two horses, and a cow. We suffered the same things that ailed the early Western explorers: bad food, bad transport, long days, and...let's face it...our own lack of fortitude. In retrospect, the trip was a kind of earned joy. During those days though, it was nearly all miserable.Every Living Thing
Man's Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys. Copyright © by Rob Dunn. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
Preface E. O. Wilson ix
Part I Beginnings
1 What We All Used to Know 3
2 Common Names 23
3 The Invisible World 40
Part II Fogging (The Tree of Life)
4 The Apostles 59
5 Finding Everything 87
6 Finding an Ant-Riding Beetle 111
Part III Roots
7 Dividing the Cell 133
8 Grafting the Tree of Life 149
9 Symbiotic Cells on the Seafloor 165
10 Origin Stories 181
Part IV Other Worlds
11 Looking Out 193
12 To Squeeze Life from a Stone 209
13 The Wrong Elephant? 224
14 What Remains 246
What People are Saying About This
“If you have any interest in life beyond your own, you should read this book...Between the covers of EVERY LIVING THING you’ll learn both about life’s amazing diversity and that process of their discovery. Savor this fascinating volume and then help to preserve life’s wonders.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
More than anything, this is a book about the thirst for knowledge, about the indomitable desire to know more, about the insatiable curiosity that drives the most passionate scientists. Not so much a story of life as a series of stories of scientists. Vaguely obsessed, not entirely normal, they could have walked right out of The Big Bang Theory, and yet just like the TBBT characters, they are lovable and you can't help rooting for them. Dunn tells us about scientists with all their hubris and flaw, and all their simultaneous passion, in a style that adds a healthy dose of irony and a deadpan delivery that turns what could seem like boring stories of ants and beetle into hilarious snapshots of life.Of particular amusement to me, as someone who lives with Asperger's syndrome, were repeated moments by Dunn where he wonders about how it is possible for someone to become so incredibly obsessed with small things to the exclusion of all others. I had to constantly repress the need to figuratively grab the man by the lapels and shake him until his teeth fell out.
This is a great journey through our desire to name all creatures and highlights some of the chaaracters who have contributed to our progress. Well written and very accessible, this book puts the concept and concern for biodiversity in context. Dunn's recounting of these researchers and their ideas also provides great insight into the process of science and its interface with society. Highly recommended.