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The Collectors

Philip Pauly

Finding Order in Nature: The Naturalist Tradition from Linnaeus to E. O. Wilson. Paul Lawrence Farber. x + 136 pp. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. $39.95 hardcover, $15.95 paper.

Linnaeus and E. O. Wilson are here, to be sure, but also P. T. Barnum's "Fiji Mermaid," and "Arab Courier Attacked by Lions," a taxidermic spectacle that has shocked museum visitors for more than a century. This brief book, the first in a series of introductory studies in the history of science, surveys the past quarter-millennium of natural history. Its theme is the dual aspect of the search for order in nature: Naturalists have pursued the very practical tasks of identifying and displaying the world's organisms and at the same time have been engaged in a deeply philosophical search to explain the causes and structures underlying life's diversity.

At left, E. O. Wilson at age 13Click to Enlarge Image

Paul Lawrence Farber, whose previous works examined the development of ornithology and the history of evolutionary ethics, provides a lucid and amazingly inclusive exposition. The activities and ideas of intellectually innovative 18th- and 19th-century naturalists (Carl Linnaeus; Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon; Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire; Georges Cuvier; Richard Owen; Charles Darwin) form the major narrative strand. With a brief sketch of Renaissance, Greco-Roman and folk antecedents to natural history, and with outlines of the development of embryology, cell theory and experimental physiology, the book provides what is essentially a general introduction to the history of biological ideas. Darwin's theory explaining taxonomic order as the consequence of the history of life rightly forms the book's centerpiece.

Farber's explanations of scientific concepts are exemplary (his discussion of Darwin is, per page, as effective as any I've read). What gives the book vitality and novelty, however, is its energetic effort to link the development of ideas with the history of collecting, cataloging and displaying. Farber situates British, French and American natural history firmly within imperial expansion and, more specifically, in the desires to inventory the world's natural resources and to display the new and unusual. He recounts the activities of such famous descriptive naturalists as John James Audubon and Charles Lucien Bonaparte (nephew of the emperor), and he sketches the development of major museums, zoos and botanical gardens. He also emphasizes the ambiguous and the picaresque. Barnum brought not only his mermaid (a mummified fish tail and monkey body sewn together) but also the truly impressive elephant Jumbo to appreciative American audiences. The courier and lion display was the enduring legacy of Jules Verreaux, who became a taxidermist only after he saw 10 years of work collecting African birds go down in a shipwreck. Farber shows how essential the infrastructure of museums and zoos was for researchers like Darwin and the extent to which these institutions enabled naturalists to convey new ideas, and the importance of natural history, to millions.

The rich symbiosis between naturalists and the public was undercut in the late 19th century by the rise of biology—a more austere and analytical science, which had a different set of practical implications. Farber acknowledges that naturalists have been less prominent in the 20th century than they were earlier, but in the final sixth of the book he sketches the work of Theodosius Dobzhansky, Julian Huxley and Ernst Mayr on the evolutionary synthesis, and he concludes by affirming the ways in which the range of E. O. Wilson's work displays the continuing vitality of the naturalist tradition.

Farber's emphasis on animals, his effort to lump a wide range of activities together in natural history and his chronological end point all mark this book as a history written from the vantage point of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. As someone who is interested in plants, in disciplinary and chronological splits and in present scientific diversity, I'm not certain that the naturalist tradition has been quite as real, broad and enduring as Farber presents it. Finding Order in Nature, however, provides a coherent and intellectually powerful perspective in an accessible form. It offers beginning naturalists an orientation to history that clarifies the meaning and confirms the significance of their efforts.—Philip J. Pauly, History, Rutgers University

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