(More) reading on the history of natural history

Image: Chamaeleon, from Arcana, or, the Museum of Natural History (1811) by Thomas, Lord Busby (1811).  Which has nothing to do with the four books reviewed here; I just like the illustration.

Research for my new book has me reading a lot of books about the history of natural history. Among the books, some are new, some are old; some are well known, some are obscure.  Here are four more minireviews (in no particular order), in case the pile of books you’ve been meaning to read isn’t big enough.  (There were six more in the first post in this series, here.)

Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of the Birds of America (Souder 2004, North Point Press).  This book, like its subject, is utterly fascinating.  I knew nothing about Audubon other than being familiar with his famous bird prints.  I assumed, somehow, that he was an upper-class gentleman with a distinguished family history.  In fact, he was a newcomer, born in Haiti and raised in France, and something of a ne’er-do-well: a serial exaggerator if not an outright liar, an atrociously poor businessman, and yet somehow an inspired artist who reinvented the depiction of natural history.  This book recounts Audubon’s story, in the context of the burgeoning American natural history of the early 1800s.  Biographies can be dry, but this one is anything but – partly because Souder has allowed himself to drift down the continuum toward “fictionalized biography”, with events and conversations recounted in more detail than can be strictly supported from the record.  Some of those details are implausible or clearly in error. A 9 foot timber rattlesnake?  Maybe (the documented record is just over 6 feet).  A mammoth thighbone 17 feet long? No.  And these inaccuracies in little things make me wonder a bit about the accuracy of the larger narrative.  Nonetheless, the detail kept the book crackling and the characters large-as-life (and often larger).  A fabulous read.

The Fever Trail: In Search of the Cure for Malaria (Honigsbaum 2002, Pan).  For centuries, the search for the cure for malaria was a botanical quest, because the cure was quinine, and quinine was to be had only in the bark of eastern Andean Cinchona trees (some, but not all, species). The English, Spanish, French, and Dutch empires were all desperate for quinine, but the trees were inaccessible, overexploited, and botanically mystifying (a difficult genus with lots of variation within and between species in quinine content).  The Fever Trail is, in large part, the story of botanical explorers trying to find Cinchona, and then, much more difficult, to return seedlings or seeds to Europe and India so it could be grown reliably and in large quantities.  Not long ago we would have called this bioprospecting; today, we might call it biopiracy.  Many naturalists make appearances, including Alexander von Humboldt; but the stars are three 19th century Englishmen: Charles Ledger, Clements Markham, and Richard Spruce.  Spruce, in particular, was a fascinating naturalist: a hypochondriac who risked (and contracted) a textbook’s worth of diseases while collecting plants across the globe.  He’s remembered now (when he’s remembered at all) for his role in bringing quinine, and Cinchona, out of South America; but what he really loved were mosses.  The Fever Trail tells the tangled story of the Cinchona expeditions, and unfortunately, has a tendency to tangle the story even more, with shifting points of view and cuts forward and back in time. The combination of imperial geopolitical strategy, Victorian naturalists, and tropical botany does carry rewards for readers who (like Spruce and Markham) can force their way through the thickets.

The Art of Naming (Ohl 2018, MIT Press).  This isn’t a book about natural-history explorers or adventurers or collectors.  Rather, it’s a book about the naming of the species those collectors turned up.  Ohl explains the practice of scientific naming and the etymologies of names, and he delves into the philosophy of naming (is a species an individual, so its name is a proper noun, or a collective, so its name is an appelative?).  He illustrates naming with examples that are by turns interesting, amusing, and occasionally infuriating.  There are appearances by eccentric taxonomists and equally eccentric animals, and if you want to know which of the alternative Latin names for the Sasquatch is the correct one (or if Sasquatches can have Latin names at all), you’ll find answers in The Art of Naming.  Now, you’ll likely have noticed that I have a certain small degree of interest in naming, so this book seems to be right up my alley.  And I did enjoy it – but in the end I wasn’t sure it really worked all that well.  (Full disclosure – the book I’m currently writing takes on a similar subject, so I’m not the most impartial observer here).  The interesting and amusing parts are frequent but not particularly well stitched into a whole.  If you devour books and essays about naming, this book is worth a read, especially if you can pick it up from your library (and you should also read John Wright’s similar, but I think more thoroughly charming, The Naming of the Shrew).  On the other hand, if you’d like to read one book about naming but don’t need to read every one, can I suggest you wait a couple of years and pick up my book?

The Signature of All Things (Gilbert 2014, Bloomsbury).  While you could argue that this book, a novel, is not like the others and doesn’t belong, I’m including it for two reasons.  First, I’ve bemoaned the fact elsewhere that scientists are underrepresented in fiction, and I’m pleased to offer this book as an exception.  Second, while it may be fiction, it’s not a bad representation of the naturalists of the 18th and 19th century (and real naturalists, from Joseph Banks to Charles Darwin, appear with some regularity).  The Signature of All Things is the story of Alma Whittaker, and her life as (first) daughter of a botanist and (then, more interestingly) a botanist in her own right.  The book follows Alma through her early life in Philadelphia, through a voyage to Tahiti, to the summit of her scientific career as Curator of Mosses at a botanic garden in Amsterdam.  Alma is something of an amalgam of naturalists of the time – there’s more than a whiff of Richard Spruce, for example – but she’s more than that: a compelling character both as a scientist and as a woman in, and chafing at, her time.  (Here’s a longer review from Jeremy Fox on Dynamic Ecology.)

That’s four (more) books, and four is enough for now.  But there are more waiting on my shelf, so expect a further post in a couple of months’ time.

© Stephen Heard  April 26, 2017


7 thoughts on “(More) reading on the history of natural history

  1. John Pastor

    People may also be interested in a (long form) review of three other natural history books I did recently in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America:


    I didn’t like The Signature of All Things. I thought everything came to a head too quickly in the last 50 pages – the heroine wrestles a Tahitian princess (really), meets Wallace, and does many other marvelous things. It’s almost as if the author was tired and wanted to end this tome. There’s is a lot of talk in other reviews about how much there is about mosses in this book, but it is only a tiny portion of the whole plot. But I do like the other books Steve reviewed in this and his previous post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael Kokkinn

    Thanks for the reviews; they’re on my pile. Now there’s a very worthy eponym for a genus: the Countess of Chinchon.


  3. Pingback: Friday links: less really is more (in economics), science vs. the Tooth Fairy, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  4. Pingback: Some (more) great reads from the history of natural history | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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