By Peter Kobel
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a host of naturalist-explorers traveled around the globe in a quest to identify new species. Science writer Richard Conniff compellingly evokes this grand age of discovery in his book The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, just released in paperback. Conniff commingles the stories of such noted thinkers as Richard Owen and Charles Darwin with less well known or largely forgotten collectors, many of whom endured unbelievable hardships for the occasional joys of discovery.
The “species seekers” were celebrated for finding fascinating creatures like electric eels or gorillas, but were sometimes ridiculed for their fascination with minuscule mosquitoes or lowly mollusks. But, as Conniff writes, “Species that seemed insignificant in themselves would raise disturbing questions about human origins, the age of the planet, the nature of sex, the meaning of races and species, the evolution of social behaviors, and endlessly onward.” We took the occasion of the paperback publication of his book to chat with him.
Q: You describe an age in which the average educated person followed the news of new species with tremendous interest. In the U.S. today, we have politicians denying climate change in the face of a mountain of scientific evidence and disturbingly poor student scores in math and science. What’s happening?
A: In the late eighteenth century, you had new species adorning saloons and they were being discussed in coffee houses. Everybody was excited about it. In the U.S., the head of the Department of the Navy was a member of the American Philosophical Society in the 1830s. Congressmen were members of that society, and they were very interested in these discoveries.
What’s changed? I think there’s a mistaken notion that everything’s been discovered. We live in as great an age of discovery today as there was in the eighteenth century. We’re finding more species now. But people are so caught up in their computer worlds, their video games, their cartoon monsters, that the real world isn’t relevant to them. It may not be relevant to them until the water is up to their necks, I’m sorry to say.
Q: The identification of new species is now sometimes tinged with sadness because of loss of habitat and the threat of extinction.
A: I was reading about a new primate that was just found in the Mekong delta that has a pompadour. It was described as the “Elvis monkey.” But the naturalists are out there seeing that forest being eaten up even as they’re describing it, and they’re trying to grab the public by the lapels and shake them by giving it that very name, the Elvis monkey. That’s an attempt to pander a little bit.
Q: In your book, you describe a point at which the amateur collectors began to be pushed aside by the experts.
A: The clash between the amateur and the expert came to a head in the 1840s and 1850s, and the amateurs lost. The field biologists were often a little bit more eccentric, a little bit more freewheeling, and the museum biologists wanted to put them at a distance so that they could establish their own credibility as serious scientists. They were also competing with laboratory science. And in all of that, the amateurs lost out.
People like John E. Gray at the British Museum, for instance. He was a quarrelsome man generally, but he always picked quarrels with field biologists and dismissed their work. So he attacked Alfred Russell Wallace in the 1850s when he came back from South America. Gray also attacked Henry Walter Bates when he came back in the 1860s. He actually suggested that he hadn’t found 8,000 new species [which, in fact, he had] and that he’d spent most of his time philandering with the local women. He was a one-man campaign against amateur naturalists. Gray was a good scientist, but I think he was plainly motivated by jealousy. He was a back-room taxonomist, which is not a profession that gets you on the front page. These others had had such adventures. His adventure was, hmm, creating a new taxonomic category. But the field researchers are essential; otherwise the taxonomists have nothing to describe. Each needs the other.
Q: To end on a more optimistic note, there is the growing popularity of “citizen science.” Some amateurs or nonscientists are intrigued enough about the natural world to want to make a contribution, such as with smartphone apps.
A: There are a ton of apps, and they’re very exciting. There’s so much potential! I like the iPhone app iNaturalist. When I see something weird in my backyard, I take a picture of it and post it on a place like iNaturalist. With smartphones and with apps we have the potential to open the natural world to ordinary people, and that’s a very big deal.
Peter Kobel, who is pursuing a Certificate in Conservation and Environmental Sustainability at CERC, has worked for a number of nonprofit environmental organizations. He is on Twitter as @TheEcoist.