Latest Posts


On bowerbird sperm & related matters

Here's my Nov. 5 review for the Wall Street Journal of a delightful book by David Rothenberg. Though I realize that I've described about the last 5 books I've reviewed as wonderful, great, delightful, etc., I really haven't received many bad books lately and I've got a couple more deserving ones piled on my floor awaiting due praise. In "Survival of the Beautiful" Rothenberg picks up where Darwin left off on beauty in sexual selection, exploring ideas that are sort of inconvenient to present-day "Darwinists" who see utility in everything. The book also introduces the ornithologist/evolutionary biologist Richard Prum. You can't begrudge a guy like Prum his MacArthur fellowship when you read about his work on dinosaur feathers, though the little shits on "" might. 


It is always good to be herpetologically correct. 

The herpetologist Kate Jackson, author of the wonderful and horrifying Mean and Lowly Things, about her scientific collecting work in Congo, wrote a very nice review of Stolen World in the October 7 issue of TLS. It's not to be found online without paying for it, and who does that, but Jackson described the book as "a gripping and absorbing read, with anecdotes too bizarre to be fiction, recounted by a writer who knows how to make the most of a good story and has tracked down the details, from the lurid to the subtle but telling, that breathe life into it." Better, she finds that the "herpetology is sound throughout." Jackson's descriptions of skin-burrowing, pimple-causing parasitic worms, which she and her field associates popped casually from their bodies like so many blackheads before their nightly field dinners of nematode-infested smoked fish, will traumatize and naturalists young and old.   


Edens and Species

Reviewed a great book about the physical search for the Garden of Eden, Brook Wildnsky-Lanford's new Paradise Lust, in The Wall Street Journal this week; and two others, Richard Conniff's excellent The Species Seekers and Glynis Ridley's The Discovery of Jeanne Baret -- both about 18th and 19th century naturalists -- in this week's TLS.  

Pasting the TLS in below, for lack of a better option!



Richard Conniff

THE SPECIES SEEKERS Heroes, fools, and the mad pursuit of life on Earth 464pp. Norton. £19.99 (US $26.95). 978 0 393 06854 2

Glynis Ridley

THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET A story of science, the high seas, and the first woman to circumnavigate the globe 304pp. Crown. $25. 978 0 307 46352 4

Adventure, for eighteenth- and nine- teenth- century collectors of natural history specimens, “was often just a nice word for prolonged hardship followed by painful death”, writes Richard Conniff in The Species Seekers: Heroes, fools, and the mad pursuit of life on Earth, a book dedicated, fittingly, to “those who died in the search for species”. Yet death, as Conniff makes plain, was only one end of a spectrum of miserable outcomes for field collectors, particularly if they were working class, of mixed-race heritage, extremely eccentric, or female.

The Species Seekers focuses on the 150-odd years between the first expeditions of Linnaeus’s students, nearly half of whom died or went mad on their collecting voyages, and the emergence of biology, which robbed descriptive natural history of its lustre. This was natural history’s most thrilling era, thanks in part to the recruitment of freelance collectors, who made many of its sensational discoveries while also turning it into some- thing of a circus. Seldom have so many of their travails been recounted in one volume, much less with such narrative skill, poign- ancy and good humour.

Most eighteenth-century expeditions were carried out by the same well-born naturalists who would later be tasked with writing up their finds, and who sought more in the way of useful food crops than noteworthy beasts. But by the nineteenth century, the filling of large institutional collections necessitated a division of labour. Professional collectors fanned out into the world to serve competing museums, and the scramble for novel speci- mens – apes and large carnivores especially – became positively crazed. The adventurers, who shot and skinned and pressed (and often sketched and journalled marvellously too), found themselves at odds with their institu- tional patrons, who were busy undermining one another in the taxonomic record, naming species vainly, and aggrandizing themselves at the field naturalists’ expense.

The divide between the field and the cabi- net naturalists, one largely based on class, widened as the era progressed. The contrasting fortunes of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace are often cited as an example of that divide, and Darwin certainly profited from the fact that Wallace was making ends meet as a collector in New Guinea while he raced to complete The Origin of Species. But, as Conniff points out, Darwin also knew first-hand the hardships of field collecting and the valuable knowledge that came of it. Darwin was gracious to Wallace; a source of great encouragement to Wallace’s fellow field man Henry Walter Bates; and solicitous, even, to the fanatically religious collector Philip Gosse, a pariah in Darwin’s circles.

Other establishment scientists, though, made minor careers of snubbing the field collectors and minimizing their contributions. Wallace and Bates were both targeted by John Gray, a keeper at the British Museum who claimed that Bates partook liberally of Amazonian women’s favours and hadn’t really found 8,000 new species (Darwin later deemed Gray an “old malignant fool”). As laboratory science increased in prestige, the museum men moved to purge their own disci pline anything or anyone seemingly unserious, and their attacks on field collectors grew uglier still. Gray harboured special venom for the gorilla-collecting Frenchman Paul Du Chaillu, whose African travelogues he maligned as fictions and whose qualifications as a naturalist he found “of the lowest order”. Upon receiving a surprisingly high bill from Du Chaillu for some travel expenses, the Philadelphia curator George Ord – America’s answer to John Gray – weighed in with a loathsome attempt to expose the explorer’s long-rumoured black ancestry. Ord wrote of “a spurious origin” in the “conformation of his head, and his features”, and evidence of “negro” tendencies in Du Chaillu’s exuberant writing. Du Chaillu, who declared himself “hurt to the quick” by all this, nevertheless re-equipped and retrained himself in the latest scientific methods for another African expedition. He survived a smallpox outbreak and two arrow wounds this time, and returned with thousands of specimens.

So why did they do it? Why did people like Du Chaillu not only stand up to repeated bouts of abuse, but head back to the field afterwards for some dysentery, chiggers and malaria? Another of Conniff’s subjects, the shoemaker and collector Thomas Edward, offers one hint. Edward, who gathered echino- derms and sponges from the northern coast of Scotland to supply better-off naturalists else- where, found he could not feed his eleven children with the proceeds. Despairing, he attempted to drown himself, only to be inter- rupted by the sight of a rare bird which he spent half an hour chasing. “I have been a fool to nature all my life”, he later confessed.

Being a fool to nature was essential to any eighteenth- or nineteenth-century field collector’s makeup, or the hardships would easily have won out. Many suffered serious setbacks, even tragedies, on their journeys, only to produce travelogues marked by rapturous delight in the smallest discoveries. Yet it is with maximum emphasis on the tragic that Glynis Ridley recounts the life of the collector Jeanne Baret in The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A story of science, the high seas, and the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.

Baret’s story is extraordinary. Conniff’s book describes two occasions when male naturalists (Joseph Banks was one) smuggled women on to ships dressed as male assistants, but both attempts were abortive. Baret spent two full years in disguise, botanizing alongside her lover, Philibert Commerson, with her breasts bound in linen and carrying two pistols to discourage closer inspection of her body.

Among the few things known about Baret is that she was born a peasant in Burgundy. She may have had extensive traditional knowledge of medicinal plants by the time Commerson, a youngish widower, brought her into his household, ostensibly as his house- keeper. Baret moved with Commerson to Paris and gave birth to their son, who died in a foundling hospital. When Commerson, bear- ing recommendations from both Linnaeus and Voltaire, was invited to serve captain Louis-Antoine de Bougainville as botanist on an expedition to Brazil and the South Pacific, the twenty-six-year-old Baret disguised herself as Commerson’s male assistant.

Baret shared Commerson’s cabin, collected specimens with and for him, and, as he succumbed to a worsening leg infection, carried so much of their equipment that Com- merson referred to her as his “beast of bur- den”. Her true sex was widely suspected just weeks into the voyage, but she was allowed to persist in her disguise until a stop in Papua New Guinea. There Baret was exposed and, Ridley alleges, raped. De Bougainville’s jour- nal describes a weeping Baret admitting her deception to him, though not her relationship with Commerson. She “well knew when she embarked that we were going round the world, and that such a voyage had raised her curiosity”, he reported. Baret and Commer- son were dropped off in Mauritius, where Commerson died in 1773 and Baret later married a French sergeant. She returned with her husband to France, and, incredibly, successfully pressed officials for her share of Commerson’s estate and a modest pension.

Baret left no surviving journal and in Com- merson’s logs she is all but absent. Ridley constructs Baret’s story from the journals of Baret’s fellow expeditioners, a handful of which mention Baret, and documentary evi- dence. Despite Ridley’s exhaustive investigations, the record contains big holes. These Ridley fills with informed but baroque conjec- ture, exploring Baret’s feelings and motives in depth, and vacillating between lauding her heroine’s intellectual and physical courage and, more often, lamenting her trials with more than a little indignation.

As she dug specimens out of the hard Patagonian soil, did Baret “bitterly resent” her servitude to Commerson? Did she seek out the first known Bougainvillea plant, only to have others steal credit for its discovery? Was she “battered emotionally and physi- cally”, caked in filth and traumatized, after a shipboard hazing ritual? Was she gang-raped by crewmates and impregnated? Ridley affirms all of this as fact, though her evidence is mostly circumstantial, and even chides Baret’s previous biographers for ignoring the obvious. Perhaps they did. But the construc- tion of Baret as martyr, the dwelling on her physical and emotional miseries, diminishes the role of Baret’s own curiosity, one of the few things she is on record as acknowledg- ing, and for which her contemporaries praised her. Fools to nature defy ready interpretation.



On seeds and the monks who loved them. 

Just wanted to post this June 10, 2011 piece in TLS -- I can't link to TLS pieces or offer PDFs, so it's just bare text. Why do we need seed banks? It's an interesting question with an interesting history. A thorough understanding of plant reproduction was stymied by scientific and religious conventions in the 18th and 19th centuries, while the preservation of genetic diversity in plants was thwarted by bad 20th century politics and policies. 
Jennie Erin Smith: Crossing peas

Peter Thompson
How the hidden life of plants has shaped our world
280pp. Thames and Hudson. £19.95 (US $29.95).978 0 500 25170 6

Our Neolithic ancestors gathered and sowed seeds from the food plants 
surrounding them, plants that were leaner and more erratic in their habits 
than those we eat now, yet astoundingly diverse. These staple plants--wheat, 
barley, corn, soybeans, legumes, squashes--became the landraces, the 
localized products of small-scale cultivation that were relied on for 
millennia. Only in the past century has that reliance ended, through a 
marriage of science and agriculture that began, as Peter Thompson explains 
in this sweeping and elegiac history, with a series of eighteenth- and 
nineteenth-century discoveries on plant reproduction. These allowed for more 
control over food production than had ever been imagined possible, with 
worldchanging and irreversible consequences. Thompson, who founded the 
Millennium Seed Bank at Kew, did a great deal of detective work to unveil 
how the early discoveries were made and how they were transmitted, or failed 
to be, among botanists, mostly in Northern and Central Europe. It was a slow 
and fragmentary process. The orthodoxy at the time, handed down from
Aristotle, was that only moving creatures were capable of sexual 
reproduction. Though this had been publicly challenged as early as 1694 by 
Rudolph Camerarius, a professor in Tübingen, who was certain that pollen 
contained sperm, a century later a contorted logic still prevailed, with 
Camerarius's successors considering whether fully formed plant embryos might 
be latent in plant sap, and activated by air.

Such mental gymnastics aside, Thompson writes, it was not long before others 
caught on to certain observable realities about flowers.

Joseph Koelreuter of Karlsruhe, who had studied at Tübingen and may have 
noticed Camerarius's work, proceeded with experiments to determine whether 
inheritable characteristics might be contained not just in pollen but in 
ovules, and also pondered the contributions of insects in fertilizing 
plants, only to have his papers conspicuously ignored. Most unfortunate was 
Konrad Sprengel of Berlin, a Catholic priest so single-minded in his 
botanizing that he was dismissed for his failure to produce enough homilies. 
Sprengel solved the mysteries of cross-pollination and insect vectors in his 
book Das entdeckte Geheimnis der Natur im Bau und in der Befruchtung der 
Blumen ("The newly revealed secret of nature in the structure and 
fertilization of flowers", 1793), which was so thoroughly disregarded that 
Sprengel died poor and unknown. In Germany and the Netherlands, the
existence of sexuality in plants was considered controversial into the 

Thompson blames the Catholic and Protestant Churches in those regions for 
having a "dampening effect" on inquiries into plant sexuality and 
hybridization, if only because in England, meanwhile, the religiously less 
encumbered botanist-farmer Thomas Knight was successfully crossing peas and 
grafting fruit trees. Still, it took a monk to finish the job. It is likely 
that Gregor Mendel had been influenced by a German translation of Knight's 
work on peas when he began his own hybridizing experiments in the 1850s. The 
astounding findings Mendel presented in 1865--that heredity in plants 
occurred in logical, controllable ways according to prescribed ratios--were 
greeted with a yawn. Mendel published nothing more about it and died an 
abbot. In 1899, he was rediscovered when a Dutch botanist's attempt to 
plagiarize him was exposed by his rivals.

It is at this point that history changes course and Thompson introduces a 
fresh cast of secular heroes and martyrs; the men (invariably--the book 
names exactly one woman) who in the first half of the twentieth century
discovered in Mendelian genetics a way to foil Thomas Malthus and feed the 
world. Sustained by private and public institutions for the advancement of 
agriculture in Europe, the United States and the Soviet Union, the new 
agriculturists promoted crop rotation, pesticides, fertilizers and hybrid 
seeds, all of which allowed for extreme consistency in production, and, 
consequently, a real mitigation of poverty. "The old landraces were 
condemned as 'peasant agriculture' with no place in the modern world--and 
with some reason", writes Thompson, who is as generous in crediting the 
Green Revolution's achievements as he is cautious about its aftermath. In 
limiting the genetic stores from which they drew, he writes, farmers "cut
the apron strings provided by a supportive Nature for their security". Few 
saw the importance of preserving the genetic bounty of the landraces as a 
hedge against misfortunes and blights, a safety net to build on and 
hybridize with. One man who did, the Soviet agriculturist Nikolai Vavilov, 
amassed seeds from landraces all over Russia and central Asia, only to be 
arrested for "conspiring against the communist social order"--peasant 
agriculture was deemed incompatible with collectivization, and hybridizing 
smacked to Stalinists of Darwinian elitism. Vavilov starved in prison before 
his death sentence could be carried out. His seeds survived.

The emergence of modern seed banks, like the one Peter Thompson started in 
the 1970s at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, has been one response to the 
steady disappearance of the landraces. Many seeds hold up indefinitely in 
cold storage, but seed-banking is a less than ideal solution, and mirrors
many of the other conservation dilemmas in today's world. Should species be 
protected in situ, where they can continue to evolve and interact, or be 
removed, with uncertain results, in the face of seemingly inevitable 
destruction? Peter Thompson died in 2008, after finishing the manuscript of 
this valuable, probing book, and Stephen Harris, curator of the Oxford 
University Herbaria, contributes a somewhat dark conclusion, warning that 
the mausoleum-like seed banks "may become temples at which governments pay 
their devotions, confident that they have done enough to secure humanity's 


Rather brilliant book reviewed in WSJ

I found this book, about naturalists' field notes, inspiring to the point where I ended up downloading on my Kindle a number of the 19th century travelogues I mentioned in my review of it, Bates' The Naturalist on the River Amazons, for example. Which I should probably have read a long time ago and have been devouring like candy. Anyway both Bates and the aforementioned book, edited by Michael Canfield, are superb. My review here