At the start, naturalists knew no more than a few thousand species, and often had the basic facts wrong. Even educated people still inhabited a jabberwocky world in which monsters abounded, and one species could slide uncertainly into another. Our own ancestors, just eight or ten generations ago, still thought that dog-headed humans lived in distant lands, probably based on early descriptions of baboons. When the fossil skeleton of a giant salamander turned up, a learned Swiss physician identified it as a sinner drowned in Noah’s Flood. Naturalists then could not even clearly distinguish some plants from animals and passionately debated whether one could transform into the other, and back again. (It’s a measure of the state of knowledge then that they thought of themselves simply as naturalists or “natural philosophers.” The words “scientist” and “biologist” did not yet exist.)
That would all change, as a small band of explorers set out to break through the mystery and confusion. The great age of discovery about the natural world was a period of less than 200 years, from the eighteenth century into the twentieth. It got its start in 1735, when the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus invented a system for identifying and classifying species. He was a charismatic teacher, both ribald and full of religious fervor for the wonders of the natural world. His words inspired 19 of his own students to undertake voyages of exploration. Half of these “apostles,” as he called them, would die overseas in the service of his mission. Explorers from other nations, also inspired by Linnaeus, soon followed, taking the hunt for new species to the farthest ends of the Earth. They made the discovery of species one of the most important and enduring achievements of the colonial era.
That word “discovery” may stick momentarily in the modern reader’s craw. Local people had often known many of these “new” species for thousands of years and in far more intimate detail than any newcomer could hope to achieve. But done properly, the process of collecting a species and describing it in scientific terms made that knowledge avail- able everywhere. Making it available in Europe was, to be sure, the primary objective. But in the process, the species seekers introduced humanity for the first time to our fellow travelers on this planet, from beetles to blue-footed boobies. And gradually we stumbled from the security of a world centered on our species, created for our comfort and salvation, to a world in which we are one among many species.
It would be difficult to overstate how profoundly the species seekers changed the world along the way. Many of us are alive today, for instance, because naturalists identified obscure species that later turned out to cause malaria, yellow fever, typhus, and other epidemic diseases. (This is one of the recurring lessons from the history of species discovery: Useless knowledge has an insidious way of leading people in useful directions. Many mothers would despair, for instance, to have a child make a career out of the study of Chinese horseshoe bats of the genus Rhinolophus. But the subject took on global importance when these bats turned out to be the source of SARS, or sudden acute respiratory syndrome, which threatened to become pandemic.)
The discovery of species also shifted the foundations of knowledge and belief. Though early species seekers typically set out to glorify God by celebrating his Creation, the paradoxical outcome of their work was to cast doubt in many minds on the very existence of God. 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. When we look in the mirror today, we can hardly help but see what the species seekers showed us.
Reprinted from The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff © 2011 by Richard Conniff. With permission from the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company.