Hunters and Gatherers

The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth
by Richard Conniff
WW Norton & Company, 2011, 464 pages

The subtitle of this book is misleading: It makes it sound as if The Species Seekers is filled with Indiana Jones types snatching marvelous animals from the wild while brandishing cocky grins and boundless bravado. It wasn’t like that in the period – the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – surveyed in this book, and so, true to reality, Richard Conniff’s latest work is a thorough and discerning account of the sometimes frustrating and usually painstaking search for new forms of life in a momentous epoch of natural history.

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About two centuries ago, naturalists from Western Europe and the United States fanned out across the planet in a quest to find unknown (to them) plants and animals. A strong impetus for these scientist-explorers was the work of Carolus Linnaeus (1707-78), the Swedish botanist and physician who devised a system for scientifically classifying (genus, species, etc.) all living creatures. Linnaeus’s system gave naturalists the confidence that their discoveries, once embedded in that system, would greatly add to the store of human knowledge. The collectibles ranged from insects to shells – at an auction in Amsterdam in the 1700s, one particularly desirable shell fetched a higher price than a Vermeer painting – to myriad larger and more exotic species (the platypus, for instance, which turns out to be a rather nasty beast).

Some of the naturalists were professional scientists; many were “amateurs” who held down other jobs. For instance, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles – Conniff mistakenly cites Stamford as his first name – the British imperialist who obtained Singapore for the East India Company, was an avid searcher for new species. “During his years in the Far East,” Conniff writes, “he would manage the discovery of several dozen new species, including the sun bear … as well as the world’s largest flower … now named Rafflesia in his honor.” Some were eccentrics – Thomas Edward, who scoured his region of Scotland for insects and other animals, stashed specimens on his head, under his hat. Some were liars, opportunists, and knaves. And yet even the scoundrels often made legitimate contributions to science.

Conniff understands that science doesn’t operate separately from the society that nurtures it, and he diligently examines the political, cultural, and social ramifications of his naturalists’ acquisitions of new flora and fauna. To his credit, the author forthrightly confronts the shameful details uncovered by this inquiry. The era scrutinized by The Species Seekers was an age of Western colonialism, and inevitably the work of naturalists was often imbued with, and manipulated to reinforce, what are now considered ugly Western concepts of cultural superiority as well as outright racism toward the inhabitants of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. “The notion of innate white superiority,” Conniff asserts, “predominated even in the most progressive intellectual circles.” The exploitation of the discovery of the gorilla for racist ends, as recounted in this book, seems particularly shocking and reprehensible today.

Also roiling the natural history field was Darwinism. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published in 1859, and his theories were profoundly unsettling for many. (They still are, of course.) “Evolution,” Conniff points out, “was a threat not just to Scripture, but to the social order.” Species discoveries that disclosed new information about evolutionary processes became, perforce, elements in the battle between Darwinists and their enemies.

Richard Conniff is an experienced writer with a gift for explaining natural history to nonscientists. He can discuss the arcana of killing, transporting, and preserving specimens (watch out for arsenic) and make the exposition not only painless – possibly not the best word choice in this context – but engaging. Moreover, he can locate the humor in individuals and incidents. The Species Seekers is not, by and large, a grim or dour work: Check out, for instance, the anecdote involving Thomas Jefferson, the Comte de Buffon, and the moose.

But perhaps the author’s worthiest talent is a perceptive pragmatism. For example: “Great discoveries seldom occur in the romantic way we like to imagine – the bolt from the blue, the lone genius running through the streets crying, ‘Eureka!’ Like evolution itself, science more often advances by small steps, and with different lines converging on the same solution. It is a social enterprise, and whether we like or not, thoroughly hierarchical. Ideas pile up in the air, the cumulative product of illiterate native hunters, virtuous and vainglorious field naturalists, and inglorious taxonomists, almost all of them soon forgotten.”

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