- Hardcover: 480 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (November 1, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393068544
- ISBN-13: 978-0393068542
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 24 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,172,170 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth 1st Edition
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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)
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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
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Top customer reviews
Starting with Linnaeus, whom Conniff paints with an expressionistic brush—acknowledging his achievement (and providing the context for that achievement), while dwelling rather lovingly and at length on Linnaeus’ sometimes grandiloquent personality: we get quite the laundry list demonstrating his robust egotism. The theme of how much the need for the expression of personality—and advancing one’s career (often at the expense of others), forms one of the leitmotifs of the book. Seeking species is apparently not just about expanding the knowledge of Mankind so much as much as it is a product of individuals grappling with the unknown—often obsessively, but using discovery to further their personal agenda.
After Linnaeus, Conniff focuses much of the book on a cluster of interactions between competing scientists. For instance: John James Audubon, Constantine Rafinesque, Alexander Wilson whose interactions make for compelling reading as each seeks to beat the other in acquiring new bird taxa in the rapidly disappearing American wilderness. The specter of Charles Ord provides the mold for “closet naturalist” dark antagonist in the book— who as President of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences exerts all his powers to thwart Audubon and Thomas Say among others. The role of evil bureaucrat is assumed in Britain a few decades later by John E. Gray, keeper of Zoology at the British Museum who does everything he can to thwart the careers of the likes of William Bates, Alfred Russell Wallace and other field biologists whose accomplishments he belittles while pluming his nest with their specimens.
The obstacles, frustrations and failures of naturalists is yet another theme running through the book: Conniff seems to relish relating the manner in which scientists suffer and often expire in the field. He even adds a five page “Necrology” as a sort of appendix to the book which lists how over 70 scientists met an untimely death in pursuit of their work. The list is far from complete—gleaning through it I noticed Reginald Farrer, the monumental botanist of China who died on a plant hunting expedition in Borneo, is missing as is Captain James Cook who died in battle with Hawaiians. Cook’s explorations throughout the Pacific were focused in large part on scientific exploration. I sought in vain for him name...
The book is largely focused on Zoology—the very heart of the book recounts the complex relationship of Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, and their co-discovery of evolution—showing how and why Darwin came away with most of the recognition for that discovery.
The complex drama surrounding the discovery of the great primates—chimpanzees at first, but the even greater drama surrounding the finding and naming of gorillas—comprise another major set-piece of the book, with many lurid digressions that explore the deep layers of racism that characterize those times. And perhaps our's.
The final chapters are more rushed: the vast exploration of China in the 19th century is glossed over, or rather, concentrated in a single chapter on Pere David, the unstoppable French monk whose extraordinary zeal and accomplishment was just the beginning of exploration in the Eastern Himalayas: Père Jean Marie Delavay, his fellow countryman and peer, barely gets a mention. And what of Augustine Henry? George Forrest? Frank Kingdon Ward? Frank Meyer? The what of the dozens of other explorers who risked life and limb and brought back tens of thousands of specimens from the same region? They were primarily botanists, or horticulturists. David’s story will have to encapsulate their vast drama.
Just as Walter Rothschild understandably takes center stage later in this book: his Gargantuan amassing of zoological collections have been wonderfully described by Miriam Rothschild, his niece—Conniff’s chapter on Walter is basically a Reader’s Digest condensation of that book—and he does manage a mention of Charles Rothschild whose discovery of the rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopsis) did, after all, provide the key to the bubonic plague. But what about Lionel Rothschild? He was apparently not worth mentioning since he was enormously successful not just as Banker but as a politician (he was the first Jewish member of Parliament, and even ran (and won) unopposed for his seat in subsequent elections.) But as the creator of Exbury, one of the grandest of British gardens. He was a key member of the Syndicate who funded the explorations of many of the leading biologists who collected herbarium specimens and seed throughout China in the 19th and early 20th Century. A large percentage of the Chinese flora was named from these expeditions, and many plants described from Exbury. But horticultural exploration—which funded many of the most productive expeditions—barely merits mention in the book. Hardly worth the mention, perhaps.
The final chapters are focused on Medicine—particularly the search for the cause of Malaria and Yellow Fever: although the discovery of new species is not so much a focus here as the discovery of the biology of these species, and how they interact with other organisms—the collaborative drama of these chapters—and the personal dramas of the protagonists—are spellbinding reading. It’s worth reading the book for this section alone. Although it is perhaps and adumbration of how species seeking has been utterly eclipsed by the Laboratory, or the "Gene Jockies" of the present day.
The book brilliantly underscores how millions of lives have depended on the discoveries of the “species seekers” and every corner of our lives has been touched by them.
Despite the inevitable omissions, this is a wonderful book, written with flair that makes for a compelling “read”. I believe any intelligent reader would become absorbed by it and learn a great deal: I certainly have!