The species seekers Heroes, fools, and the mad pursuit of life on Earth

Richard Conniff, 1951-

Book - 2011

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New York, NY : W.W. Norton c2011.
Main Author
Richard Conniff, 1951- (-)
1st ed
Physical Description
x, 464 p. : ill., ports. ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Contents unavailable.
Review by Choice Review

This work, the direct result of the author's 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship, is a treat to read. Conniff (Spineless Wonders, CH, Apr'97, 34-4465) writes in a straightforward, engaging, entertaining style. The text is both timely, as biologists race to find, describe, and study Earth's biodiversity in the face of rapid extinction, and timeless, as his narrative provides an in-depth perspective of the heyday of specimen collecting, mostly done by young, often little-known amateurs who laid the foundation for modern taxonomy and systematics. Conniff's vivid descriptions of personal lives, rivalries, and numerous perils of collecting in the 1800s is developed against the social milieu that fostered the public's fascination with the beauty and novelty of exotic species--both insect and vertebrate--from far, scattered parts of the world. Readers will be amazed at the significant research and the depth of comprehension that arise from these pages. The "Necrology" section, which provides the cause of death of numerous collectors, highlights the dangers in the field. The work is nicely illustrated with sketches of key collectors, and includes an extensive chapter-by-chapter notes section, a substantial bibliography, and a useful index. This is a book that one will surely read more than once; field scientists should own this volume. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. J. E. Platz Creighton University

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Booklist Review

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.--Taylor, Gilbert Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

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) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Nature writer Conniff (Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals, 2009, etc.) chronicles the obsessions and joys of naturalists who, in the 18th and 19th centuries, fanned out across the globe in pursuit of new species."For that sense of private joy in small moments of discovery," writes the author, these adventurers and scientists willingly braved "hunger, loneliness, disease and other hardships of field life." Collectively, their discoveries contributed a body of knowledge that laid the ground for Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). A century earlier, Carolus Linnaeus' classification scheme helped systematize the new knowledge, although the discovery of strange fossils challenged his belief in the Bible (e.g., five-pound teeth of extinct mammoths found in the American colonies). George Washington's private collection included one, and Thomas Jefferson referenced them to refute claims that New World species were stunted because the supposedly inhospitable climate. Darwin's evolutionary theory of natural selection challenged contemporary notions of man's special relationship to God and suggested the alarming notion that humans had evolved from an orangutan. When Linnaeus published the 1758 edition ofSystema Naturae, he listed 4,400 species; at the end of the 19th century, 415,600 were known. "But even today," writes Conniff, "with the total of known species pushing 2 million, new species continue to turn up almost everywhere in the modern world." The author considers these continued discoveries to be "a broad triumph of the human mind," and his enthusiasm for his subject and admiration of these explorers is infectious.An entertaining survey of a well-worked field that should go nicely alongside the raft of books published for the 2009 Darwin bicentennial.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.