Richard Conniff on The Species Seekers

The 18th century was an age of discovery when a frontiersman mentality yielded scientific breakthroughs in natural history

The Arctic Blue bird
According to author Richard Conniff, "what really got the species seekers started was that a Swedish botanist named Linnaeus had invented a system of scientific classification." The New York Public Library / Art Resource, NY

Richard Conniff is the author not only of untold Smithsonian articles—he’s been writing for the magazine since 1982—but also of nine books. His latest, The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, highlights the origins of modern natural history back to the 18th century. At a time when the word “scientist” hadn’t been coined, a fever for novel animals and plants swept Europe and sent dozens of crazed amateurs to the most alien places on the planet in search of specimens. We prevailed upon Conniff to talk about his efforts to retrace their footsteps.

First, give us some context: What set off this species rush?
It was the great age of discovery, naval expeditions were going out all over the world from Europe to see what the world was, and naturalists were almost always part of the crew, usually doubling as surgeons. But what really got the species seekers started was that a Swedish botanist named Linnaeus had invented a system of scientific classification. Before Linnaeus, people called the same species by a dozen different names, depending on where they lived. But after Linnaeus, there was only one name—and the simple fact that there was this common language produced an almost ecstatic response.

The species seekers you write about were hardly the sort to set off in lab coat and pocket protector. What qualified them to sally forth and, in effect, compile the database for all of natural history?
They weren’t qualified in any sense we would recognize. They’d gone out as kids and collected beetles or birds or whatever just out of curiosity, but everyone was an amateur. That goes even for Charles Darwin. What it took was enthusiasm and an ability to learn on the job, out in the field, often at considerable risk to their lives. One of the rare female species seekers, Mary Kingsley, developed her understanding of the African forest to the point where an old hunter from the Fang tribe told her, “Ah, you see.” That sort of seeing is what they were all after.

They didn’t have much of an ethical code, did they?
No, and in fact they did things we’d find appalling. Some of them were particularly interested in human skulls. I have a letter from a Philadelphia museum to a missionary in West Africa that said, “Gee, if you would send us half a barrel of skulls of the local people, it would help us out. “There was this wholesale collecting not only of animal specimens, but of humans, too. The great collector Paul du Chaillu was approached by an African man who said he might soon have a skull for him; once du Chaillu realized that the skull belonged to a still-living person, he stopped the conversation out of fear that he might be abetting a murder.

One of the great characters in the history of exploration was a physician and anatomist named John Hunter. He was one of the leading surgeons of the day in London, and he was a great market for “resurrectionists”—grave robbers. But he needed cadavers to do his work and to teach his students. His house on Leicester Square became the model for the house in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He treated patients in the front rooms, and in the back he had a drawbridge that allowed for the delivery of cadavers. But his work basically founded the field of comparative anatomy, and modern surgery, too.

Here they were in the days before grants and fellowships. How did they fund their research trips?
A lot of them had family money. Some of them had no money, but they collected specimens and sold them to collectors back home. That was an incredibly hard living. But in the later 19th century a lot of very rich people got caught up in this excitement over species. One of them was Walter Rothschild, an heir to the banking fortune. He was 6-foot-3 and weighed 300 pounds, and he was socially inept, but he was absolutely determined. He kept 400 collectors in the field at a time. When he realized that sailors were eating Galapagos tortoises, he hired someone to go to one of the islands and collect every last one. He bought an island in the Indian Ocean to keep most of them, and he brought some back to his home in Tring, north of London, a strange and beautiful place that you can still visit. But he amassed a collection of huge scientific value: when scientists want to know about the diversity of the birds in the Galapagos, they need to go not only to the islands, but also to his collection, which is now at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

The commitment of these people is impressive—and, at times, heartbreaking. When you suffer some misfortune in the office—say, when you lose some work because of an errant hard drive—do you ever say to yourself, “Hey, at least I’m not [Georg Eberhard] Rumphius”?
I do. Rumphius did amazing things, but he had a terrible life. He was one of the first species seekers, in the late 17th century, and he spent his time studying tropical biology after the Dutch East India Company posted him to Indonesia and then to the island of Ambon. He married an Ambonese woman and started to write books on his specimens with her help. And then at the age of 42 he was suddenly struck blind, and he had to depend on his wife and daughter to describe what he couldn’t see. And then his wife and daughter died in an earthquake and his drawings were destroyed in a fire. And then—after he persisted for 30 years, writing a multivolume book called the Ambonese Herbal—the ship on which he dispatched the first half of the manuscript to Amsterdam sank. The Herbal survived in a single copy that the governor of Ambon had had made for his personal use. Rumphius went to work again, but when the complete manuscript finally made it to Amsterdam, the Dutch East India Company wouldn’t allow it to be published, for fear the information in it would help the competition. So he died unpublished and unsung. More than 300 years later, the Yale University Press is bringing out the first English-language edition of the Herbal in March 2011.

But despite the imperial arrogance and the Wild West ethics, the seekers as a group accomplished something monumental. How many species did they bring back and describe?
When Linnaeus’ system first took hold, there were only 4,000 known species. By the end of the 19th century, the count was well over 400,000. And now we’re up to two million. Linnaeus himself sent 19 of his students into the world, and 9 of them died. What they were doing was riskier than being an astronaut—there was no support crew back home, no radio, no GPS. There was malaria, yellow fever, dysentery. Because of the seekers, we know the causes of those and other diseases, and can control them.

So the seekers opened the way to an intimate understanding of the world. But their fellow Europeans seem to have had a little trouble conceptually with the gorilla.
The weird thing is that the gorilla wasn’t discovered until 1847. Westerners had been traveling to Africa for four centuries and somehow had missed the biggest primate on earth. So when they became known to the West, people hadn’t lived with other primates, hadn’t seen them in zoos. And after Darwin published, people did everything they could to deny the connection between humans and gorillas—partly by deflecting that connection to other people they considered inferior. And they used it to justify slavery and political oppression. In one British political cartoon, for example, Irish nationalists were turned into “Mr. O’Rangoutang” and “Mr. G. O’Rilla.”

And what does that tell you about human nature?
Well, when people ask me to name the weirdest creature I’ve ever written about, I have to say it’s humans. We had delusions then, and we have delusions still.

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