Even more great reads from the history of natural history

Image: Jackdaw by ivabalk, CC0 via pixabay.com

Research for my new book has had 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, and this time around, one was blue.)  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.

Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names (Moss 2018, Faber and Faber).  This charming book explores the etymologies of the common names of birds.  It runs the gamut from old names (goose from ghans, a 5,000-year-old Proto-Indo-European name) to new ones (Chocó vireo, from the location of its discovery).  Some bird common names are onomatopoetic (jackdaw, rook); some are descriptive (swallow, from an old English word meaning a cleft stick); some are based in folklore (goatsucker); and some are – you can imagine my interest – eponymous (the titular Mrs. Moreau’s warbler).  Moss revels in the complexity of common names, with regional and language variants, and tangled histories reflecting the efforts of naturalists and birders to fit strange birds from strange lands into comfortable terminology from home (hence, both North American and Australian robins).  This book is enormously fun, packed with historical anecdotes and quirky characters (Leach’s storm petrel commemorates a naturalist so far beyond “quirky” you can barely see it from there).  It’s a book for dipping into (there’s too much detail to retain from the one-session reading you’ll be tempted to do).  What fun!

A Species of Eternity (Kastner 1977, Knopf).  The 18th and 19th centuries were a heady time for natural history.  European exploration (and, unfortunately, subjugation) of the globe had resulted in a deluge of weird and wonderful specimens needing description, study, and naming.  It might be fair to recognize the heyday of natural history exploration as starting with Linnaeus’s new system for naming and classifying organisms, and culminating in Darwin’s provision of the theoretical basis for understanding Earth’s biodiversity.  A Species of Eternity tells the stories of the naturalists who explored the United States during the exciting period when nearly every animal and plant they encountered was new to science: Catesby, Colden, Garden, Lawson, Bartram, Collinson, Nuttall, Audubon, Gray, and many more.  The individual stories are fascinating (consider, for example, the serially shipwrecked Baron Ambrose Marie François Palisot de Beauvois, surely the world’s unluckiest naturalist).  Because these naturalists’ paths crossed so frequently, the book as a whole is a bit of a tangled skein.  I enjoyed the individual threads more than the skein, but then I was a bit rushed in the reading.  I suspect that A Species of Eternity will be well worth re-reading at more leisure.  (This book is long out of print, but used copies seem to be easy to find, or check your local library.)

The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds (Lewis 2012, Yale University Press). In the last quarter of the 19th century, science was rapidly professionalizing.  In many fields, but perhaps most notably in natural history, the work of interested amateurs was losing relevance and respect as science became predominately the province of full-time, mostly doctorally-trained scientists in the employ of universities, museums and other institutions.  The Feathery Tribe is a look at this period through the fascinating lens of American ornithology, and especially through the life and work of Robert Ridgway (1850-1929).  Ridgway was the Smithsonian Institution’s first curator of birds; he was famous in 1900 (when John Muir described him as having “wonderful bird eyes, all the birds of American in them”) but is obscure today.  He published some 500 articles and 23 books, and described a metric pantsload of bird species and subspecies.  He discovered his first new bird species at age 16, when he arrived at the Smithsonian as the budding naturalist of the King surveying expedition across what was then the Nevada Territory.  He returned from that expedition, three years later, to a position as an illustrator at the Smithsonian: he had, like science around him, been professionalized.  The Feathery Tribe could have been a dry, technical study of science’s professionalization, but it isn’t because of the naturalist characters that populate its pages: not just Ridgway, but Nuttall and Audobon and Bartram and Baird and Coues and many, many more.  It was a turbulent time full of turbulent people.  And since I have something of an interest in the topic, I’ll note that the turquoise cotinga, Cotinga ridgwayi, is one of half a dozen bird species named for Robert Ridgway.  It’s a colourful bird; The Feathery Tribe is a colourful story.

The Annotated Old Fourlegs: the Updated Story of the Coelacanth (Bruton 2017).  This is Mike Bruton’s annotation of a classic – J.L.B. Smith’s (1956) Old FourlegsThat’s Smith’s first-person telling of his role in the discovery and description of the living coelacanth.  Smith was the fish expert called in by Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the young museum curator who was given the specimen and recognized its importance.  The original is a fascinating read, taking you through the discovery and how it felt to be in on such a discovery.  It also paints a portrait of Smith that’s sometimes flattering (he was a staunch defender of Courtenay-Latimer and batted down any attempt to minimize her role) and sometimes not (in his racist beliefs, he failed to rise above his South African milieu).  The annotation brings the story up to date and provides a lot of context (and doesn’t shy away from the less savoury aspects of Smith’s character).  My last post along these lines mentioned two books about the coelacanth story, and those are more scholarly, but The Annotated Old Fourlegs is more fun.

© Stephen Heard  July 25, 2019

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


1 thought on “Even more great reads from the history of natural history

  1. Jan Murie

    Another unusual name is the Nazca booby in the Galapagos, named after the indigenous Nazca culture in Peru (or the town or the “lines”). Formerly considered a masked booby, apparently it is now a separate species. Seemed a matter of pride for our Ecuadorian guide.



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