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The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  309 Ratings  ·  38 Reviews
Beginning with Linnaeus, a colorful band of explorers made it their mission to travel to the most perilous corners of the planet and bring back astonishing new life forms. They attracted followers ranging from Thomas Jefferson, who laid out mastodon bones on the White House floor, to twentieth-century doctors who used their knowledge of new species to conquer epidemic dise ...more
ebook, 480 pages
Published November 1st 2010 by W. W. Norton Company
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Sep 02, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: natural history buffs; people interested in science, wildlife, and nature; biology/zoology nerds
Shelves: animals, science
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 inte ...more
Jan 31, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book. There were many unsettling passages, but documenting the categorization phase of our understanding of life on earth is one of the reasons I can't get enough of natural history museums.

Something I learned from this book was that pre-Darwinian collectors tended to find one or a few examples of each species because the prevailing theory was that creation was recent, and Noah's flood was even more so. Once Darwin and Wallace presented the theory of natural selection, it was reali
May 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The public is endlessly fascinated by the possibility that there might be life on other planets. What might those life forms look like? Might they have DNA? How might they behave? Might there even be intelligent life somewhere “out there”? Despite the fact that some people have turned their eyes to the stars in their search for life, new species are still being discovered here on Earth nearly every day. When scientists first began formally collecting, describing and cataloging the world’s specie ...more
Elizabeth Silverman
I bought this book on a whim, the title intrigued me and I've enjoyed classifying the species that live around my neighborhood. Luckily, my gamble paid off and I finished The Species Seekers in very little time, charmed and enchanted. I ended the book only wishing to read more, so I'm pretty sure that another Conniff book will soon end up on my reading list.

The book chronicles a number of different researchers of the natural world, the outcomes of their stories, and to my delight the rapport be
Andrew Updegrove
Mar 02, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Those enjoying biography, history and the natural world
Recommended to Andrew by: Read an essay by the same author in the OpEd section of the NY Times
The Species Seekers is based upon two main themes. The first is that the people that became obsessed (or sought their fortunes) by discovering new species were a remarkably strange and interesting lot, and Conniff substantiates this contention amply through the scores of fascinating sketches he provides throughout The Species Seekers.

The second is that the stuffy academics that usually got the credit for new species (by being the first to describe them in the scientific literature) did not give
The information in and research behind this book are top notch. Conniff knows his stuff and does a wonderful job covering the most important and interesting collectors, discoverers, and describers of natural history, mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries. The book is also very readable and entertaining. With that said, however, it also incredibly aimless and sprawling. At times I felt like the narrative thread changed every 10 pages or so. I was glad to be along for the ride most of the time, bu ...more
Panayoti Kelaidis
Feb 02, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

A 464 page tome that attempts to cover “age of discovery” of new taxa since Linnaeus should probably be forgiven for its omissions: I have had a little trouble doing so, although (in the end) I have to admit I think this book is a wonderful account, spellbinding at times, that contains lots of information that was new to me. The book is really a series vignettes focusing on individual scientists from the late 18th Century down to our own. They were picked to demonstrate the many challenges that
Joshua Buhs
This is either a very naive book, or a blithe one. Which isn't to say it doesn't have some entertaining pieces.

The problem is with the set up. It reminds me a great deal of the current controversy over Steven Weinberg's recent book "To Explain the World," which unapologetically and without argument takes an old-fashioned view that science is progressive and disconnected from culture: that the only science that matters is contemporary science and other forms of knowledge can simply be dismissed w
Chris Leuchtenburg
Jun 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nature, science
Probably most fascinating book that I read this year. The adventures and misadventures of the people who scoured the world in the 18th and 19th centuries seeking new species filled me with awe, admiration, dread, wonder and amazement. Wonderful quotes:

Linnaeus: "Oh what kind of marvelous animals we are, for whom everything else in the world is created. We are created out of a foaming drop of lust in a disgusting place. We are born in a canal between shit and piss. We are thrown head first in the
Jan 10, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nature
It was a time of fanaticism and fervor. In the 19th century, enthused by tales of adventure and derring-do across the world, young men would sail across the globe, risking death from accident, disease, drowning or cannibals, searching for new discoveries. The goal was not new lands or territories - the continents had already been divvied up - but new forms of life. There was an intellectual zeal at the time that caused these men to weather incredible hardships in the quest to be the first white ...more
Jul 12, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting!!!

Fun facts (& thoughts):
1. We only discovered about 2 million species out of an estimated 50 million species here on Earth!
2. Sir Stamford Raffles was born to a slave trader father :O
3. There is microbial life in CLOUDS!!
4. Science isn't about eureka moments- everything builds upon each other! Ideas move back and forth.
5. While scientists then published journals- we now write blogs. They correspond through written letters- while us, emails.
6. Is there really nothing left
Jan 27, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: to-read-non-fic
This was a very entertaining history of the search for plant and animal species mostly by European explorers, and especially by British ones. There were many fascinating stories about interesting and often eccentric individuals, and the wonderful creatures they discovered. The book also described the medical advances which were the result of the centuries of finding and cataloging/describing plants and animals. The evolution of the species seekers was also part of the evolution of the scientific ...more
In short, this was an amazing book. Often, the world of pre-20th century naturalism is seen as the realm of stuffy victorian gentlemen, looking at dusty specimens through a magnifying glass. The truth is that while those stuffy gentlemen were part of it, there was far, far more.

This book focuses to a large extent on the personalities that drove the rush to identify and catalogue species in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Alfred Russel Wallace, James Audobon, Comte de Buffon, Carl Linnaeus, M
Theresa Leone Davidson
Richard Conniff, a writer for National Geographic and other publications, has apparently been all over the world, exploring and discovering lots of impressive facts about different species, and he writes in this book about all of the other scientists and would-be scientists, many of them quite fascinating, who have done the same. The book is a compilation of discoveries made, dating back even to Thomas Jefferson's time, and is a nice combination of history, ecology, biology, and whimsy. In 1758 ...more
Dan Drollette
Dec 04, 2013 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Disappointing. Conniff has done some good books in the past, but this just was not one of them. This book is unfocused, sprawling, with no narrative theme and nothing that made me want to turn the page. Just not up to snuff with his other work, alas.

One caveat: I must admit that after getting halfway through the book, I had to give up on it. So it is conceivably possible that the book picked up later on -- but from the skimming ahead that I did, it sure did not look it. And I had other books tha
Sep 12, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very enjoyable and easy to read, despite the scope of the book in describing those seeking new animal species. This work is similar to Darwin's Ghosts by Rebecca Stott, in that Richard Coniff illustrates how the massive amount of new species discovered (rediscovered), esp. species with tremendous variation like finches and barnacles led Darwin, Wallace, and others to theorize natural selection as the driving force in Evolution.
Jul 25, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nature
A little too much detail on obscure characters, but I suppose the topic can be considered esoteric. More a biography than a work of natural history per se. However saying that the classification of life into species allowed the eradication of animal borne diseases such as malaria and yellow fever is almost like attributing the invention of language to all life saving technologies and medicines we possess today, a bit of a stretch to me.
Three-plus stars. I really enjoyed the history of science and of the brave and crazy people, almost all men, who went into the wilds of earth before the 18th century to discover and collect plants and animals large and small. Their findings, despite monumental blunders, back-stabbing and racism regarding findings, and many horrible ways to die in the jungle (listed at the back of the book), set the groundwork for modern biology and medicine.
Aug 28, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is actually a well-researched history of natural history that aims to be a rollicking read. It largely succeeds. Despite losing a bit of momentum in the middle chapters, whose vague topics I sometimes suspected were excuses to include juicy stories that didn't fit elsewhere, it's a memorable ode (and perhaps even a handy reference) to the contributions of the "species seekers" of the past few centuries.
Dec 30, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fun non-fiction book about the history and adventures of the men and women in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries who risked their lives and sanity (and occasionally the lives and sanity of those sound them) to find and classify the flora and fauna of the world. Mostly well written, good easy read.
Dec 20, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is the story of the remarkable, dedicated and sometimes very quirky people who collected and classified new plants and animals from all over the world, primarily in the 19th century. It's full of information and left me flabbergasted by the length some people would go to be the first to identify a new mollusk (or merely for the shear adventure of it all).
Feb 24, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you are looking for a good book on the history of biology, look no further! Species Seekers is informative & entertaining. Though the stories should be taken with a grain of salt, the basic factual context is riveting if this is the sort of thing you are interested in.
Dec 08, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ottimo saggio che narra, attraverso le peripezie dei primi naturalisti, come le scienze biologiche (ma non solo) sono nate e si sono evolute.
Questo è uno di quei saggi che negli ultimi anni delle superiori tutti dovrebbero leggere.
Nov 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
See other reviews.
Some parts were better than others.
Nov 23, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Jul 06, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Interesting read about some lesser known individuals (and also more famous ones) who helped discover (or more like introduce to the scientific world) the variety of life on earth.
Aug 11, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned, science
A very enjoyable read with great stories. The writing in the chapters seemed to get better as it went, with one of the best on Mary Kingsley.
Apr 19, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wacky Victorian men argue with each other about who tracked down which bug first. It was awesome.
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Richard Conniff, a Guggenheim Fellow and winner of the National Magazine Award, is the author most recently of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth. He writes for Smithsonian and National Geographic and is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, and a former commentator on NPR's All Things Considered. His other books include The Natural History o ...more
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