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The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth Paperback – November 7, 2011

ISBN-13: 978-0393341324 ISBN-10: 0393341321
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Editorial Reviews

From 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.) (c)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Conniff (Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time, 2009) here offers portraits of specimen collectors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Counting many eccentrics among their number, Conniff’s cohort was enticed by the landscape of potential discovery and the low barriers of entry into the profession. A net, a gun, and enthusiasm sufficed in the beginning. Greater success depended on chance variations ranging from the species hunter’s personality to his connections with gatekeepers of natural history, ensuring a fickleness of fate that Conniff develops into a series of dramas. John James Audubon needs no explanation, but an acquaintance of his, “a brilliant crackpot named Constantine Rafinesque,” represents the time’s mania to be the first to find new species. An antithesis to the Rafinesques are the taxidermists and descriptive classifiers of collectors’ hauls, and Conniff recounts their progress in making systematic sense of botany and zoology, which was crowned by two collectors who cracked the evolutionary code, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Illustrated with Conniff’s cast, this work reliably engages the history-of-science readership. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (November 7, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393341321
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393341324
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1.4 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #200,688 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard Conniff writes about behavior on two, four, six, and eight legs. He has collected tarantulas in the Peruvian Amazon, tracked leopards with !Kung San hunters in the Namibian desert, climbed the Mountains of the Moon in western Uganda, and trekked through the Himalayas of Bhutan in pursuit of tigers and the mythical migur.

His latest book is The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth (Norton, November). Also now out in paperback is Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals (Norton, 2009). He is the author of The Ape in the Corner Office: How to Make Friends, Win Fights, and Work Smarter By Understanding Human Nature (Crown, 2004), The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide (Norton, 2002); Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife (Holt, 1998); Spineless Wonders: Strange Tales from the Invertebrate World (Holt, 1996); and other books.

The New York Times Book Review says, "Conniff is a splendid writer--fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can't resist quoting him."

Conniff also writes about wildlife, human cultures and other topics for Time, Smithsonian, Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and other publications in the United States and abroad. His magazine work in Smithsonian won the 1997 National Magazine Award, and was included in The Best American Science and Nature Writing in 2000, 2002, and 2007. Conniff is also the winner of the 2001 John Burroughs Award for Outstanding Nature Essay of the Year, a 2009 Loeb Award for distinguished business journalism, a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship,and a 2012 Alicia Patterson Fellowship.

Conniff has been a frequent commentator on NPR and recently served as a guest columnist for The New York Times online. He has written and presented television shows for National Geographic, TBS, Animal Planet, the BBC, and Channel Four in the UK. His television work has been nominated for an Emmy Award for distinguished achievement in writing, and he won the 1998 Wildscreen Prize for Best Natural History Television Script for the BBC show Between Pacific Tides.

You can follow him on Twitter @RichardConniff, and on his blog

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By David B Richman on January 18, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Up front I am a "species seeker" in that I have devoted part of my career to the collection of spiders, especially the Salticidae (jumping spiders), and have named and described 13 species by myself and one with a co-author. I now suspect that one of these may be a synonym, but the others seem to be pretty solid. I have a strong dislike of both sub-species and "races," as I really can see no absolute empirical evidence for these, and I prefer what many diatomists use- namely varieties, usually abbreviated "var." There is so much natural variation within many species that one can often find intergrades and seemingly random variants within a population that resemble members of other populations. Species themselves are not rock-hard entities, nor can they be if natural selection works as we think it does. When we can come to a definition of species that covers all cases then we can think about sub-categories.

Having stated my own biases, I have to say that I found Richard Conniff's "The Species Seekers" to be quite fascinating, especially in his discussion of taxonomy and parasitic diseases and of the eccentric naturalists of the 19th Century who described (and often misdescribed!) much of the fauna and flora. The chapter on the gorilla war is quite interesting. The explorer Paul Du Chaillu fought with the established scientific community and was eventually proven right about most of his points, except for his description of the gorilla as being vicious. Conjectures over Du Chaillu's race and ad hominum attacks did not reflect well on many of the people involved.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Tintin on April 25, 2011
Format: Hardcover
What a cast in Richard Conniff's book The Species Seekers! Every chapter seems to introduces a crazier, more pivotal, more heroic, more influential, or more inspiring character than the last. These are, by and large, either explorer/naturalists or curators/collectors -- every one something of a scientist. From the 4,400 species listed by Linnaeas in 1758 to the more than 2m today, Conniff concentrates on the heydays of exploration in the early to mid 1800s and takes us quickly to the present in the last few chapters and epilogue. The subjects of his study are almost all male, and most subscribed at the time to two doctrines which they jointly overturned: 1. the separateness of humans from lower animals and 2. the immutability species. Much of their effort seemed driven by pure interest and perhaps and thirst for adventure, with a little desperation at times. Some of the discoveries, like the malaria-carrying mosquito (species: Anopheles) have proven very practical eradicating disease. Others, like the theory of evolution were even more far-reaching.

Natural Selection is popularly credited to Charles Darwin, but the reader will learn that the theory was solidifying about that time in various quarters. It was an idea whose time had clearly come; we might call it the "Darwin-Lyell-Hooker-Huxley-Wallace-Chambers-Matthews-and Mr. Vestiges' theory of evolution." [For a companion tale to this one -- more narrow and more focused -- I'd highly recommend the excellent Darwin's Armada by McCalman]. Conniff describes the horrors, tragedy, and hardships the explorers endured -- these were on a scale of which we can hardly imagine today. No doubt, many died whose stories will never be told.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Holly on November 7, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Conniff does a spectacular job wrangling the fascinating history of naturalist exploration. I was impressed with the care and detail he gives to his seekers, while also keeping their stories readable. This was a book I had a hard time putting down.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Dave Kuhlman on April 18, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is a book that deals with many of the details about discovering species, classifying
species, preserving species, displaying specimens of species, etc. But, it's also a book
about a revolution in thought and knowledge, about the birth of scientific knowledge and
scientific methodology. It's also about the effects and conflicts of the people of the
time as they adjust to the notion of geological time scales, the position of humans within
the natural order, etc.

Some remarkable things from the book: (1) The passion and excitement of both those who
actively participated in collecting new species and those who came to view these new
collections. (2) The hard work done to regularize this new knowledge and the methods with
which it was collected. This was the beginnings of the scientific method that we know
today. (3) How driven the collectors were, and how their extreme motivations led them to,
sometimes, stretch the truth. But, their high level of motivation also enabled some of
them to endure the hardships and dangers that they faced while collecting specimens. By
the way, I was interested to learn that some of these collectors, especially those who
were not independently wealthy, supported themselves by sending back and receiving payment
for specimens, *lots* of specimens.

Conniff also gives the reader some appreciation of the just how revolutionary ideas about
evolution were, how threatening and upsetting those ideas were to some, especially to
those of the Christian religion, and how difficult the battle was for the acceptance of
those ideas.
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