A Breed of their own
The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff
Financial Times, 20-21 November 2010
‘Our perfect naturalist,’ wrote the English clergyman, naturalist and novelist Charles Kingsley in 1855, “should be strong in body; able to haul a dredge, climb a rock, turn a boulder, walk all day … he should know how to swim for his life, to pull an oar, sail a boat, and ride the first horse which comes to hand; and, finally, he should be a thoroughly good shot, and a skilful fisherman; and, if he go far abroad, be able on occasion to fight for his life.’
Amid the tales of adventure and hardship vividly told by the American science writer Richard Conniff in this marvelous book, most of those naturalists who made it their mission to travel the globe in of search glory and new species were far from perfect. But as he captures the mania for collecting and cataloguing the natural world in the 18th and 19th centuries, Conniff shows that these daredevil amateurs played an invaluable ‘part in building a great and permanent body of knowledge’.
What does it mean to discover a species? Surely local people had known most of these species for many years before they were ‘discovered’. Discovery, explains Conniff, isn’t just a matter of being the first person to lay eyes on an animal, plant or insect. You must recognize that there’s something different about it and explain in print just how and why it’s different. That requires some scheme of classification.
At the beginning of the 18th century, naturalists knew only a few thousand species, and sometimes could not even distinguish plants from animals. That changed in 1735 when the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus published his system for identifying and classifying species.
Armed with the Linnaean system, guns, nets, collecting boxes and an almost missionary sense of purpose, species seekers went everywhere, from the Namib Desert to the Great Barrier Reef, and brought back creatures that even the authors of medieval bestiaries could hardly have imagined.
Naturalists were often caught up in the business of conquest and colonization, using natural history to advance their own careers and to remake the world on European lines. Yet many of us are alive today, for instance, because naturalists identified obscure species that later turned out to cause malaria, yellow fever, typhus and other epidemic diseases.
Modern species seekers still aim to catalogue every species on Earth, even though the tally is nearing 2m, and new ones are found daily. In 2003, the eminent American zoologist E. O. Wilson proposed the Encyclopedia of Life, a web-based project with a page for every species within 25 years. But as Wilson acknowledged at the time, ‘the truth is that we do not know how many species of organisms exist on Earth even to the nearest order of magnitude.’ He thought the final count would be about 10m. Others believe it could be 50m or even 100m - numbers that Conniff’s heroes and fools could not have imagined. We still live in the great age of discovery and this is the story of how it began.