Some (more) great reads from the history of natural history

Image: Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland in the Amazon jungle, via Painting by Eduard Ender, circa 1850; from the collection of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Research for my new book has me reading a lot of books about the history of natural history. Some are well known, some are obscure; some are old; some are new. (Some were borrowed, although at least this time around, none were blue.)  Here are a few more minireviews (in no particular order), in case the pile of books you’ve been meaning to read isn’t big enough.

Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science (Yoon 2009, Norton).  This book, Yoon tells us, started out as a history and explanation of taxonomy – the science of naming and describing species.  It grew into something else, something a little bit strange, and something a bit difficult to put one’s finger on. Roughly, it became somewhat metaphysical, and grew into an extended essay on what, exactly, we are doing when we assign names and taxonomic positions to species.  Yoon is terribly worried about whether taxonomists are recognizing a natural order rather than making purely arbitrary distinctions (she, and all taxonomists, would agree that they should do the former), and how they could possibly know.  She’s fascinated by what she calls the “human umwelt”, by which she means the world as sensed by humans – and in particular, whether the umwelt leads to a natural classification or an unnatural one. This is an interesting question, except that the umwelt is never precisely defined.  (Is it just characters visible to the naked eye?  If we have to use a microscope, are the revealed characters still part of the umwelt?  A stain?  A DNA sequencer?)  This question of whether the umwelt leads us astray – the question that gives the book its subtitle – is the backbone upon which Yoon hangs her history of taxonomy, her discussion of evolutionary vs. numerical vs. cladistic systematics, and indeed everything else.  I had a hard time finding this compelling, largely because it was irritatingly vague.  And yet along my irritated way I found myself fascinated by some of the stories she told.  There was a lovely exposition of Darwin’s barnacle work, an incisive* mini-biography of Ernst Mayer, and more.  I felt like I was touring a building I didn’t much appreciate, built of bricks that sparkled.  If you squint to focus on the bricks, Naming Nature is an enjoyable read.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humbolt’s New World (Wulf 2015, Vintage).  I know, I’m late to the party on this one – this (like no other book I’ve featured in these posts) won prizes and made bestseller lists.  Still, I hadn’t read it, and there are probably others like me.  Wulf’s book is a biography of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the Prussian polymath who traveled widely in South America and Russia and – Wulf claims – more or less founded the science of ecology.  It’s a highly entertaining read.  Humboldt was an astonishing figure: brilliant, interested in pretty much everything, and a prolific writer who shared his ideas eagerly.  His brilliance sometimes got the better of him (his experiments with electric eels in the Orinoco River suggest more enthusiasm than common sense), but there’s little doubt he left an enormous legacy for the nascent sciences of ecology, biogeography, and environmental sciences.  My complaints about the book are relatively minor.  First, Wulf may be a little bit too eager to credit Humboldt with every insight (perplexingly, she fails to mention Maria Sibylla Merian’s voyage to Surinam, 100 years before Humboldt ventured to Venezuela; Merian’s voyage was considerably more dangerous and she had quite a few of the same insights).  Second, Wulf seems a little too impressed by the transcendental flavour to Humboldt’s writing.  It may well be true that one of his major contributions was to focus on global similarities and networks of interactions, rather than the specifics of specimen after specimen.  Nonetheless, she connects him with pseudoscience like Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and quotes him, rapturously, over and over again saying things like “all [physical forces] flow forth from one source…and all melt together in an eternal, all-encompassing power”.  I’d have to read Humboldt in the original to know whether this kind of guff predominates or is just something Wulf chose to focus on.  I suspect it’s the latter; otherwise, Humboldt really couldn’t have had the influence he did!  But I’m carping, and it was easy enough to make allowances for these quirks.  If it isn’t perfect (and whose book is?), The Invention of Nature is a fascinating and highly enjoyable read, and overall an impressive piece of scholarship (the notes and references run 130 pages).  If you don’t read a lot of books of this sort, The Invention of Nature might be something of a gateway drug: accessible, fun, and interesting on every page.

Living Fossil: The Story of the Coelacanth (Thomson 1991, Norton) and A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth (Weinberg 2000, Harper Collins). In 1938, the zoological surprise of the century turned up on a fishing boat in East London, South Africa.  It was a coelacanth – a member of a lineage of lobe-finned fish that had been thought to be 65 million years extinct. These two books tell the story of the discovery and of efforts since the discovery to catch and study more specimens.  Both books recognize something important about the discovery: that the people involved are at least as interesting as the fish.  Three people are central to the initial discovery: Hendrik Goosen, the fishing-boat captain who caught the coelacanth; Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the young museum curator who recognized its importance; and JLB Smith, the chemist-turned-ichthyologist who identified the fish and named it.  Courtenay-Latimer suggested it be named for Goosen, but Smith insisted on naming it for Courtenay-Latimer instead (it’s Latimeria chalumnae).  The stories of the three people connected by the fish out of time make up the opening chapters of each book, and they’re fascinating.  Thomson’s book is the earlier, and perhaps a bit more engagingly readable.  Weinberg’s book takes the story a decade further, though, with the advantage that she’s just able to catch the discovery, in Indonesia in 1997, of another living species of coelacanth.  Her book is a little more detailed too (and it’s fascinating detail). Otherwise, the two books overlap extensively, and only the obsessed are likely to read both**.  Either is a fine choice.

© Stephen Heard  February 7, 2019

If you like this sort of book, you’ll find my mini-reviews of some others in previous posts in this series: here, and here.

*^Both in the sense that incisive actually has (shrewd, sharply focused) and in the sense that it ought to have from its etymology (tending to cut).

**^I did.  But then, I was working on a chapter for my new book about the coelacanth’s discoverers, and its name.  So if you want a chapter-length version rather than a book-length one, just wait about a year!



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