I wasn’t aware of how important Linnaeus’s contribution to humanity was until reading The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, by Richard Conniff. We are all familiar with those cute italicized names like Caenorhabditis elegans, Anopheles gambiae, Escherichia coli, but we are not familiar with the impact that the Linnaean naming system has had on our personal lives. His system created an understandable order out of the millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of separate species of living things which inhabit our Earth; and that system enabled people to study the relationships within the complex interactions of those myriad of life forms. His system has been improved with our better understanding of the genetic relationships, but Linnaeus set humanity on a better path.
With the clarity of Linnaeus’ system, and the understanding of how natural systems actually work, we have been able to control or eliminate hundreds of diseases which once plagued mankind and our domestic animals. It is because of the work of these species seekers, in part, that humans average life expectancy has gained decades over the last hundred years. In the 1800s major American cities like Philadelphia, Washington and New Orleans would occasionally lose over ten percent of their population to an epidemic disease, and no one knew why until the species seekers, honored in this book, unraveled the relationships between bugs and people. It wasn’t “mal-air” that caused malaria it was the mosquitoes in the air and the germs in the mosquitoes bite that caused malaria. It took years of hard work and many clever and dangerous experiments to unravel those relationships, but in the end that work has saved millions of human lives and will, over the long run, save billions more.
The Species Seekers tells the strange stories of a many of these strange men, with complex motivations for contributing to the knowledge of humanity; motivations which threatened and often took their lives. Alfred Russel Wallace is among the most undervalued people in the history of the modern world. Among many other things he accomplished is explaining clearly to Charles Darwin how evolution worked, and Darwin then popularized Wallace’s ideas with his book, The Origin Of Species. Many years ago I read Darwin’s book, The Voyage of the Beagle,a great adventure story that made Darwin famous decades before he published The Origin of Species. Wallace wrote The Malay Archipelago,an equally exciting adventure travel with the clarity of a philosophically inclined field researcher personally involved with species hunting. These guys, and the others in The Species Seekers exposed themselves repeatedly to the dangers of the world – disease, robbers, wars and to the all to frequent to the sinking of the ships they were traveling on with their personally discovered treasures.
The Species Seekers is a great read for facts, fun and motivation.