Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Species Seekers by Richard Conniff

You are to imagine, ever-constant reader, that I type surrounded by towering columns of books, some mouldering, eldritch tomes (first editions of Haggard and Doyle, no doubt); some gharish and wrinkled (trashy, sensationalist page-turners from the 70s and 80s); some bright and shiny with embossed silver font (modern bestsellers dealing out contemporary thrills while pretending to concern themselves with the Empire of yesteryear).

You are to imagine, too, that beside me as I sip bourbon and clack the keys on my automated type-writing engine is my to-read pile. It is enormous, of course. Figuratively and literally, I will never defeat it. Try as I might to make a dent into it, I know that I will someday have to throw in the towel and admit that my literary eyes are bigger than my belly (I am speaking metaphorically of course. I don’t recommend consuming books with your belly).

A book which has recently been exhumed from the depths of this Babelian tower of unread works is The Species Seekers. It was gifted to me at the end of my stint in the jungles of Panama by an employer who obviously took note of my enjoyment of her copy of The Lost City of Z. Here’s a chap who appreciates a good tale about explorers and naturalists getting themselves killed in far-off lands, she must have thought. And she was right, though I didn’t get around to realising just how right she was until almost two years later.

The Species Seekers concerns itself with tales about individual enthusiasts from the so-called ‘age of discovery’. See, up until the mid-eighteenth century, according to the author, mankind had developed no sensible, systematic approach to cataloguing the wonders of the natural world. He admits that various non-European cultures did have a tremendous knowledge of their native flora and fauna, as well as the uses to which it could be put, but none of them had anything approaching a rational, scientific classification system, ‘though it is no longer fashionable to say so.’ Conniff, however, is far from pro-Imperial, and largely I feel that his interpretation is correct. I may disagree with how the native peoples were treated during the age of colonialism, but I still appreciate the scientific benefits that accrued during this same period.

All this changed, of course, with the ideas of Carolus Linnaeus, who invented the binomial classification system, an updated version of which we still use today. In terms of his influence, Linnaeus is undoubtedly one of the most important biologists who ever lived. Alongside a few other luminaries such as Darwin, Linnaeus helped knock modern biology into the shape in which we know it now. All in all, he’s a big hero in the scientific world, and he’s featured early on in The Species Seekers… but not quite to the extent to which you might expect.

See, Richard Conniff’s interest lies with the underdogs. He focuses instead on Linnaeus’s nemesis, a Frenchman named Buffon, who you’ve probably never heard of. Despite being a big-shot in his day, Buffon wasn’t quite on the money and his considerable contributions to our modern understanding of classification have been largely forgotten, while Linnaeus still enjoys a rosy reputation. There are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments early on in the book as the two butt horns in a typically eighteenth-century fashion, naming reprehensible species after one another, the knowledge of Buffon’s eventual historical obliteration lending the feud a somewhat poignant air.

From there, Conniff goes on to show how the collecting and identification of species became a sort of mania within certain European countries. And he uses this mania as a starting-off point to explore Victorian attitudes towards colonialism, race and class, and many other fascinating aspects of the period. He really gives a feel for the time; as he pokes into the lives of these many forgotten heroes and lunatics, the reader comes to understand the very different ideas and expectations that controlled their lives. Class is a huge issue, of course: the difference between Darwin’s privileged upper-class world of great armchair scientists and politicians and Wallace’s grim work-house existence make it a wonder that the two could ever have contributed so much to the same field. It makes us understand too, how Wallace could have genuinely felt nothing but thankfulness that the well-connected Darwin would include him as essentially the lesser partner in a joint presentation that would bring the idea of natural selection to the world at large. As a low-class Victorian, Wallace appreciated that even thought he had stumbled upon the idea independently, and begun talking about it first, he would have been nothing without Darwin’s connections.

Attention is paid too to the men who helped prepare the world for the Darwin/Wallace bombshell through their earlier, preliminary thinking on evolution. Conniff impresses upon the reader that the idea of a sudden, momentous discovery is usually never so simple, and that the road to the theory of evolution was a long and rocky one. Many thinkers had proposed various systems that bordered on common descent, and the idea was very much in the public eye, though of course it was still highly contentious.

Any student of Victoriana will be well-rewarded, as old friends consistently appear alongside Conniff’s forgotten heroes. Super-hero geologists Hutton and Lyle are brought masterfully to life, ‘Dinosaur-creator’ Richard Owen’s low-down conniving merits several mentions, Chambers of the Edinburgh Journal proves that he had other things to print besides gonzo articles about spiritualism, and Charles Kingsley makes several appearances just to prove once again that he was a big ‘ol racist.

The book is a treasure trove of amazing stories. Other subjects touched upon include the remarkably late discovery of such large ‘charismatic’ mammals as the gorilla and the giant panda, the consistent attempts to justify racist delusions using ‘science’, and the link between biology and the destruction of various tropical diseases. It’s been a long time since a book so well reminded me that biology is an adventure. It quite convinced me to once again don my pith helmet and head out into the wilds, with only my wits (God help me) and a copy of Insects of Western Europe to protect me.

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