Preeti's Reviews > The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth

The Species Seekers by Richard Conniff
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's review
Sep 02, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: animals, science
Recommended for: natural history buffs; people interested in science, wildlife, and nature; biology/zoology nerds
Read from November 28 to December 11, 2011

I really enjoyed this book. I'd been wanting to read it ever since I heard about it, which must have been around two years ago when I read my first Richard Conniff book, Swimming with the Piranhas at Feeding Time. First of all, let me attempt to explain the rating. For the information and learning, I think this book deserves five stars. I'm giving it four because it kind of started dragging a bit for me in the middle - but I blame that entirely on myself rather than the book. Everything was interesting enough but I think I was salivating at the thought of the other books piled up in my room that were waiting to be read so this one almost started moving too slowly. But then I got back into it and it was fascinating. So I'll say it should be 4.5 stars, how about that?

Overall, as I said, this book was extremely informative. I learned a lot! - which, I won't lie, I'll probably forget soon, if I haven't forgotten already. The book explores the history of, uh, natural history - essentially the adventurers, explorers, collectors, scientists, etc., who pursued the discovery of wildlife from the time of Linnaeus (mid-1700s), the father of the taxonomic system, up to about the early to mid-1900s.

You can apply this quote to the rest of the book:
Discovering new species wasn’t about collecting “the refuse of nature” but its wonders […] Each new species held the dazzling potential to reveal the secrets of life itself.” (p31)
One thing I loved was the subtle humor Conniff intersperses throughout the book. Also the tidbits and fact-lets that tied different sections together, or connected with modern day events/pop culture, were really fun and interesting to read.

As I was reading, I noted down choice quotes and a bunch of thoughts I had to accompany them, so I'll present them as the rest of my review. I recommend this book for natural history buffs; people interested in science, wildlife, and nature; and biology/zoology nerds.

(Note: These are presented, for the most part, in the order of seeing them in the book, which mostly follows a chronological order. Be forewarned: it is a long list. Also, a → denotes a new thought and/or quote.)

→ What counts as a discovery? Just white/Western men going to places to "discover" things already known? The distinction lies in spreading the information to the world, examining, classifying, etc.
Discovery isn't just a matter of being the first person to lay eyes on some odd duck of an animal. You must also recognize that there’s something different about the thing you are eyeing – and explain in print just how and why it’s different, so people elsewhere in the world can understand. […] Discovery is often a social and collaborative enterprise. (p35)
→ John James Audubon was a slave owner! This stands out to me because he was a revered ornithologist and has a big organization named after him. But I guess if only the inherently good people were to become famous and have important things named after them, nothing would ever have a name!

→ The hypocrisy of many of these people was astounding. Though at the same time, I wasn’t surprised. It was the times they lived in. (Which does not necessarily excuse their behavior, conduct, actions, etc.)

→ LOLs abound:
In the 1840s, a British magazine recommended that shell collecting was "particularly suited to ladies" because "there is no cruelty in the pursuit" and the shells are "so brightly clean, so ornamental to a boudoir.
Riiight -
Or at least it seemed that way, because dealers and field collectors often went to great lengths to remove any trace of the shell's former inhabitant. (p79)
The poor wimmins, who like pretty, shiny things, give them some shells, make ‘em happy. No cruelty there, not in forcing animals out of their homes or in some cases, their bodies, and killing them!

→ I became a fan of Rumphius, who seemed to actually love animals and plants, not just the race of discovering the most species. He called out "covetousness and pomp" among collectors. Said objects have could have special power only of found by oneself or as a gift but not when "bought with money." So this bit was interesting:
(In one of the stranger twists of literary history, Edgar Allan Poe would later get Rumphius’s philosophy backward, describing him as ‘a fool’ who once gave ‘a thousand pounds sterling for one of the first discovered specimens’ of the Venus dione. Even more strangely, the error occurred in the only commercially successful book Poe published in his lifetime. The Conchologist’s First Book was a school text Poe edited and improved based on a British volume.) (p81)
Terrible to read about all the misfortune he suffered and then having to sell he best part of his collection! (To the 1%, no less.) H died an unpublished author, though his works gained traction afterwards. So sad!

→ When tempted to think of the simple-mindedness, the stupidity, the naïveté, of these old naturalists, this is a good reminder:
"But the questions are simple now only because they have been answered," the twentieth-century paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson once reminded readers. "Every answer was contrary to the accumulated lore of all the millenniums before 1700. They required not only the rejection of some of the fondest beliefs of mankind but also the development of fundamentally new ways of thinking and of an apparatus for scientific interpretation." (p94)
At the same time, it's great to consider that some people were going against the tide, and instead of trying to mold nature to their previously held ideas, were trying to create new theories.

→ America has always liked things big:
For the United States, the "mammoth" had set loose the characteristic nineteenth-century America delight in things boisterous and big, helping to create a national sense of identity and self-confidence. (p109)

→ Early anti-science sentiment:
The social atmosphere was Old Disharmony. A local schoolteacher directed the full blast of snout-faced early American anti-intellectualism at the naturalists and their specimens: “tell me what benefit will arise from their work to the present and even the future generations,” she demanded in a letter. “This is the case with all Scientific people. Their knowledge is not only useless (because there is no application to it) but hurtful; it carries the mind astray, in fact it is false knowledge.” (p133)
Love that this ties in towards the end of the book as Conniff discusses all the diseases that were eradicated due to this “useless” knowledge!

→ Well!:
The notion of innate white superiority predominated even in the most progressive intellectual circles. Thomas Jefferson regarded blacks as irredeemably debased. He lamented the absence of a proper natural history of the race and wrote, “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both mind and body.” (This was years before the slave Sally Hemings would becoming his likely mistress and mother of several of his children.) (p176)
→ Fuck me, this is our history (and by "our" I mean the human race in general):
At times, however, the consequences of such thinking came all too visibly to the surface. Robert Schomburgk was a German naturalist best known for discovering Victoria regia, a waterlily with great round leaves like serving platters. He happened to be at Anegada, the northernmost of the Virgin Islands, in 1831, when a passing Spanish slaver, the Restauradora, hit a reef and sank in shallow water. When he passed the spot soon after, “the clear and calm sea” revealed “numerous sharks, rockfish and barracuta … diving in the hold where the human carcases were still partly chained, to tear their share from the bodies of the unfortunate Africans." (p177)
→ The length that some people - "scientists" – went, to try to distinguish between races as different species was absurd! Common knowledge even in the 1800s was that different species can't produce fertile offspring. But clearly interracial relationships in humans were producing fertile offspring. So this one dude, Samuel G. Morton, tried to prove that this happens in the animal world as well, between different species.

→ Slave owners who tried to prove that the black race was a different, and inferior, species. No conflict of interest there!

→ Science was used to try to justify this, not the "dogmatism" of religion. But a clergyman "provided the most rigorous argument against the Morton camp, defending scientific truth and (for once) religion" - John Bachman. He avoided making religious arguments but implemented scientific methods used to distinguish species: bone count, structure of parts such as the larynx. He also talked about domestic cattle which had a large variety of skull types yet were considered one species, so why was that used as a way to distinguish different races as different species?
This is what he faced:
His Hippocratic oath did not keep Josiah Nott from voicing his wish to “kill of[f] Bachman,” to “skin Bachman,” to see him “cut up into sausage meat.” After what he deemed a particularly effective riposte, he wrote of Bachman, “I really feel as if a viper had been killed in the fair garden of science, and I hope his death will be a warning to all such blasphemies against God’s laws” – the laws, that is, that made blacks a separate, inferior species, and keeping them as slaves the work of righteousness. (p190)
→ Then came the part about Frederick Douglass who was awesome. Why have I not read more about him yet?

→ Awesome to read about how enthusiastic people were about everything from gorillas to seaweed to infusoria (minute aquatic creatures including ciliates, protozoa, and single-celled algae). For example, there was such a thing as pteridomania, “the madness for collecting and keeping ferns.”

→ Taken out of context, this is hilarious:
"Science and learning in Washington? I should as soon expect to see them flourish within the purlieu of Newgate" (the notorious London prison). - George Ord, a nose in the air ornithologist (p199)
→ When reading about Alfred Russel Wallace's loss of innumerable amount of species, notes, drawings, etc., I actually felt his pain. All that work gone because of a huge ship fire. In his own words:
”How many times, when almost overcome by the ague [malaria], had I crawled into the forest and been rewarded by some unknown and beautiful species! How many places, which no European foot but my own had trodden, would have been recalled to my memory by the rare birds and insects they had furnishes to my collection! How many weary days and weeks had I passed, upheld only by the fond hope of bringing home many new and beautiful forms from those wild region... And now everything was gone." (p254)
This is especially worse when thinking that if he had had his specimens he might have come to the realization of the theory of evolution much sooner.

→ The emergence of the theory of evolution, independently reached by both Darwin and Wallace, was fascinating. I'd only read about it in not much detail in science classes throughout school but this was so cool to know how it all went down. And poor Wallace did get the short end of the stick. How many remember his name? No, when you think of evolution you think of Darwin. But then again, you do have to caveat that with the fact that Darwin had been working on this theory for years, had the manuscript, and had done tons of research to back the idea:
He didn't just supply the mechanism, the how, of evolution, which he and Wallace had both discovered; his painstaking work on barnacles, pigeons, and a vast array of other species collected by naturalists over the previous century, combined with his reputation from the Beagle voyage, made the idea credible. (p279)
Reading the copy Darwin sent to him in New Guinea, Wallace was plainly thrilled: “Mr. Darwin had given the world a new science, and his name should, in my opinion, stand above that of every philosopher of ancient or modern times.” He seems to have felt no twinge of envy or possessiveness about the idea that would bring Darwin such fame. (Nor for that matter, did fame bring the reclusive Darwin much joy.) (p281)
Ah, but you can't say Wallace was without fault:
Wallace behaved much more typically, the Mearnes write, when he “claimed the glory by right of his superior ornithological knowledge, and as employer of his team of assistants” for having discovered Wallace’s Standardwing (Semioptera wallacii), a new bird of paradise, and the only species in its genus. It happened in late 1858 or early 1859, just as the natural selection story was unfolding back home. In his book, The Malay Archipelago, Wallace credited his field assistant Ali for collecting the bird, but immediately added (the Mearnses’ italics), “I now saw that I had got a great prize, no less than a completely new form of the Bird of Paradise.” Later in the book, he described it simply as “discovered by myself.” (p282)
→ Ha!:
"But evolutionary thinking inevitably struck those of weaker faith as an assault on religion, much as it does today."
Compared to Charles Kingsley, who wrote to Darwin:
"If you be right, I must give up much that I have believed & written,” Kingsley wrote, in a letter thanking Darwin for an advance copy of the book. “In that I care little… Let us know what is… I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that he created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful… as to believe that he required a fresh act of intervention” to fill every gap caused by the natural processes “he himself had made. I question whether the former be not the loftier thought.” (p280)
→ Of course, we keep in mind:
Great discoveries rarely 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 it 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. (p283)
→ Hard to draw the line between terrible behavior and thoughts of naturalists/explorers especially in the cases where their actions have saved species. For example, Armand David was an explorer and missionary in China in the mid-nineteenth century, and he came upon a species of deer that had been hunted out from the wild but a small population of 120 animals survived in a hunting park. After some attempts he was able to get hold of two skins. "In the ensuing excitement about the 'new' species, French an British diplomats pressed the imperial estates to release live animals for shipment to Europe." A breeding population was established in London, while in China the last deer at some point was shot and eaten. In 1985, a breeding population was shipped back to Beijing and now the species numbers almost 1,000 animals in their native habitat.

→ Loved this bit:
It is the subtext to those endless drawers of carefully arranged specimens in the end around the world: Someone had collected each specimen; killed it; skinned it; stuffed it, set it, or put it in preservative; pencil–scratched a label for it; carried it cross–country; shipped it home; studied it; and classified it – and then repeated this ritual over over, countless millions of times. For each specimen, someone had gone hungry and sleepless. Someone alone in a remote and hostile territory had wept. Someone had perhaps drowned, been murdered, suffered malaria, yellow fever, dysentery, or typhus. Someone had certainly cursed and complained, though not so much as we might expect. Someone had said, "Hunh!" And someone had rejoiced. (p334)
→ A chapter on women species seekers! Thank you, Richard Conniff!

→ Found this bit particularly humorous:
Women were *of course* too delicate, dainty, unintelligent, uninterested, etc. for science and particularly, for exploring. Also, society called on them to "'sigh in alarm at the least hint of sex or reproduction,' [Lynn Barber] or almost any other aspect of the anatomy. Indeed, social convention required sparing them even the near occasion for such alarm." When the British Association for the Advancement of Science finally allowed women to attend its meetings in the 1830s, it "barred them from a session where papers were to be read on the racy topic of reproduction in marsupials. The very word 'mammal' was fraught with difficulty. In one public address, Richard Owen tactfully characterized the class Mammalia as 'nourishing their young in a peculiar way' and thus avoided shocking women in his audience who might not otherwise know what their breasts were for." (p340)

→ I would love to read/learn more about Mary Kingsley, who was awesome yet fell prey to similar sentiments of the time: white and black as separate species (and black as inferior), women intellectually inferior to men, and a variety of others.

→ Gah! As expected this chapter pissed me off! But happy it was included, though it was quite (too) short. This is to be expected, since women weren't really present in this field during history.

→ The section on diseases was fascinating. You (or at least, I) don't realize that "the solution" to eradicating these diseases "depended on having precise knowledge - both taxonomic and behavioral - of the species involved." (For example, various species of mosquitoes, worms, etc.) "Moreover, it often involved multiple species, including the bacterium or other organism that causes the disease, plus one or more host species that serve as a reservoir for this microbe, and a vector species to deliver it to the human victim. As Manson put it, 'the etiology of disease' - that is, the study of its origins and causes - 'is but a branch of natural history.'" (p357)
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11/28/2011 page 31
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message 1: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Wonderful review, Preeti.

Preeti Thanks, Stephen! I'm surprised you read it because, a) it was super long (I got carried away), and b) it's a pretty niche subject! But I really enjoyed it - quite fascinating.

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