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All Creatures

All Creatures: Naturalists, Collectors, and Biodiversity, 1850-1950

Robert E. Kohler
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    All Creatures
    Book Description:

    We humans share Earth with 1.4 million known species and millions more species that are still unrecorded. Yet we know surprisingly little about the practical work that produced the vast inventory we have to date of our fellow creatures. How were these multitudinous creatures collected, recorded, and named? When, and by whom?

    Here a distinguished historian of science tells the story of the modern discovery of biodiversity. Robert Kohler argues that the work begun by Linnaeus culminated around 1900, when collecting and inventory were organized on a grand scale in natural history surveys. Supported by governments, museums, and universities, biologists launched hundreds of collecting expeditions to every corner of the world. Kohler conveys to readers the experience and feel of expeditionary travel: the customs and rhythms of collectors' daily work, and its special pleasures and pains.

    A novel twist in this story is that survey collecting was rooted not just in science but also in new customs of outdoor recreation, such as hiking, camping, and sport hunting. These popular pursuits engendered a wide scientific interest in animals and plants and inspired wealthy nature-goers to pay for expeditions. The modern discovery of biodiversity became a reality when scientists' desire to know intersected with the culture of outdoor vacationing. General readers as well as scholars will find this book fascinating.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4971-0
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. CHAPTER ONE Nature
    (pp. 1-46)

    We humans are one in a million: to be exact, one species among 1,392,485, according to a recent tally by the zoologist Edward O. Wilson. Those are the ones we know: estimates of the total number of living species range from five to thirty million and up, depending on how one reckons.¹ A substantial majority of Earth’s species are insects: something like 751,000 by Wilson’s tally. Plants account for another 248,428, the vast majority being flowering plants (which coevolved with insect pollinators). Among the vertebrates, bony fishes are the largest group, with 18,150 species, leaving aside the 63 species of...

  2. CHAPTER TWO Culture
    (pp. 47-90)

    It is well known that a profound change occurred in Americans’ relationship to their natural environments in the last third of the nineteenth century. Americans rediscovered nature—or reinvented it. Even as they continued to subdue and exploit the continent’s abundant natural endowments, Americans began also to conceptualize nature as a place of intellectual and spiritual interest and recreative power. Older conceptions of “nature” and “wilderness” were transformed to make them congruent with the changing landscapes that Americans actually inhabited and used.¹

    Much has been written on the evolving literary and philosophical ideas of “nature” and “wilderness,” but rather less...

  3. CHAPTER THREE Patrons
    (pp. 91-136)

    The customs of outdoor recreation made it easy for amateur naturalists to collect and observe, but what about those who wished to make their avocation a vocation as professional collectors or survey naturalists? Unlike casual collecting, systematic survey required organization and resources. Survey collecting meant expeditions, which were well beyond the means of all but the most devoted and well-heeled amateurs. Scientific access to the inner frontiers had a higher threshold than did simple collecting.

    The demands of intensive survey collecting were also beyond the means of the academic institutions in which most biologists earned their livelihoods. Most collegiate natural...

  4. CHAPTER FOUR Expedition
    (pp. 137-181)

    The heart of natural history survey was the expedition itself: the small groups of individuals who went forth into the inner frontiers to collect and observe. How were these ventures organized and managed? What customs guided their makeup and activities? And how were they experienced? These are the topics of this chapter and the next.

    It is useful to think of the survey expedition as a kind of scientific instrument. That may seem odd to those familiar only with the physical instruments of laboratory or fieldwork—balances, galvanometers, barometers, sextants. But historians of science have recently been expanding the category...

    (pp. 182-226)

    We know nature through work, the environmental historian Richard White has observed.¹ And it follows that we know it as variously as we work: by foraging, farming, touring, timbering, exploring, mining, hunting, camping, perambulating, collecting, surveying, experimenting, naturalizing. The question for us is, what kind of work was natural history survey, and how was it different, say, from exploring or amateur collecting? What were its rules and customs, and how was it experienced?

    The distinctive character of survey work derived from the basic fact that it was both science and recreation. As professional scientists, its practitioners were concerned with issues...

  6. CHAPTER SIX Knowledge
    (pp. 227-270)

    Knowledge of biodiversity was the end to which museums were built and surveys organized; expeditions funded and launched; plants picked and pressed; animals killed and transformed into scientific specimens; vast collections lovingly assembled, cataloged, and protected from decay. To know all the plant and animal species with which we share our little blue-green planet—their numbers, natures, places, and relations to their environments and to each other—that is what impelled collectors into the field. To have a passenger list of our communal Ark as complete as one could make it.

    But to count the species, as Noah did, means...

    (pp. 271-286)

    From our vantage in the twenty-first century, it is clear that natural history survey was a passing phase in the Western discovery of biodiversity. Like the preceding Linnaean and “Humboldtian” phases, survey was a dominant mode for about fifty years, then gave way to new modes as the circumstances changed that had made it dominant. It was one of the more remarkable ventures of modern science. Hundreds of expeditions launched to every corner of the world; millions of specimens assembled and lovingly preserved—what made all that happen? It was to answer that question that I undertook this book. As...