The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth
W. W. Norton & Company (2010)
In this excellent book, Richard Conniff introduces us to the scientists, naturalists, dilettantes, and others (from the brilliant to the crazy) who contributed so much to the natural history we know. While the focus is on zoology as developed by European and American seekers, this also works as a history of the natural sciences in the 18th and 19th centuries. This period saw hunting for new species raised to a manic level it's never attained before or since. When professional scientists were few, species-hunters came from every walk of life - doctors, sea captains, hunters, and women, who didn't get their due then and don't really get it now. (I had no idea that Beatrix Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit, was a bona fide expert on the fungi who was shunned by organized science in England.) Conniff creates an especially vivid portrait of Mary Kingsley (who died young in 1900), who was as daring a field collector as anyone.
I've often thought a book could be written strictly on the scientific contributions of missionaries: Conniff does not neglect them, recounting Father Armand David's many daring discoveries in China. The famous names like Darwin are here, of course, but along the way we also meet such men as Walter Rothschild, who proved a hopelessly incompetent banker (the family has basically erased him from its history) but a keen naturalist and a funder of major collecting expeditions: Paul Du Chaillu, who made countless real contributions but also created the myth of ferocity among gorillas, and the men and women who supported the more famous naturalists (one item that sticks in my mind is Sir Richard Owens' wife's diary entry about coming home to find a dead rhinoceros in her no-doubt-immaculate front hall.)
Some of the naturalists here may have hastened the demise of species by taking specimens seemingly without limit, but others foresaw the need to start protecting the natural world. Their discoveries also contributed greatly to the development of the idea of natural selection and to its subsequent refinement. Conniff presents this in roughly chronological order, and it's fascinating to follow the narrative as naturalists slowly put the pieces together and began to understand such concepts as ecosystems and natural selection pressures. Conniff gives us these people as they lived, not ducking the racism, sexism and imperialism that plagued even the greatest minds of the day, but not wallowing in it either. This thoroughly researched and superbly written book is a time machine to the great era of species-hunting, and I cannot imagine any student of the natural sciences who will not enjoy the ride immensely.