Another book from my vulturine gleaning of the Border’s collapse is this tale: The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, by Richard Conniff. Considering all the surveying I’m doing and my general interest in natural history, it is a wonder I never came across it before. A story about the humans who risks life and limb to catalogue the life on this planet: how can that not be interesting?
If you look at the sheer amount of literature that has been written about the classification of life on this planet… it’s a durn daunting mountain of paper. It can be hard for uninitiated people to understand what all the fuss is about. From the discovery of new species to erecting new clades from DNA evidence to questioning the validity of certain taxon, all this scientific inquiry is trying to answer a basic question as precisely as possible: double u tee eff am I looking at? If you take away all the meta layers and discourse… all we’re trying to do is see what is more related to what, given some assumptions.
Richard Conniff’s books chronicles the formulations of the modern methodology for cataloging the natural world. Now is a good time to mention that every indigenous culture has a very intimate and observant understanding of nature. The Hawaiian names for plants here are an example of just how observant. To me what really took off with Europeans cataloging everything was a global perspective of nature. That couldn’t happen without a couple of inventions.
One was a common lexicon. The book goes into detail about the creation of the binomial Linnaean system. Previous to the classification system, names for biota were a long jumbled mess. Is it the snake with 14 scales along it’s jaws and light green with tan stripes… or was it 12 scales? Naming conventions were a much needed start in order to try and understand biology.
Another necessary invention was specimen preservation. Names had to be associated with some type specimens. This required advancements in taxidermy to allow the classifications to continue. Those stuffed museum specimens may seem antiquated now, but they served a purpose. It allowed people to go back and see what exactly John Q. Field Naturalist described when he was naming a new species. Which is especially helpful when people started comparing biota from distant places to see if there was any similarity.
But once that did happen, the large-scale study of Earth’s organisms took off. The fervor of all this collecting is captured well by Conniff. He begins, for instance, with a commander in the French army who had the audacity to collect beetle specimens in the middle of a pitched battle. When reading about these accounts of well-traveled naturalists which to my modern eyes seem strange, I’m reminded of L.P. Hartley’s famous quote: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” For me, it was a real treat to see the human side of the people whose names I’ve only come across when researching the biota of this planet.
The book also goes in detail about the arguments and battles that arose from the analysis of all this data collected. From the folks that were asking for more rigor when describing species to the people that questioned the status quo and looked into the mechanics of life evolving to the people that vehemently opposed them, it was insightful to read about the great debates of the time. Some seem quaint because they’ve ended up as minor quibbles in the greater scheme of things. Others are still being debate to this day, unfortunately. (That great 800-lb SEO gorilla we’ll save for another day.)
An interesting but appropriate addition was the necrology. It was a list of individuals who’ve died in the pursuit of species. It’s humbling for me, one who imagines rediscovering species here in Hawaii, to know that these ridges have been scoured before. These predecessors did this surveying with less safety nets and more courage than I.
So, in the end, would I recommend it? I think it’s a nice way to ease into biology merely by seeing the history of it all. The book doesn’t bombard you with too much technical terminology and Conniff keeps the prose very readable. If you have any passing fancy on natural history or you just want to know what the L is after Panthera leo, take a look at this fascinating story.