Before the words “scientist” or “biologist” even existed, there were naturalists. These European and North American amateur animal enthusiasts hunted the world for new life, bravely (some say recklessly) pursuing one of history’s greatest intellectual quests. When Carolus Linnaeus invented a species classification system in 1735, he sparked a society-wide thirst for discovering exotic creatures that infected everyone from Charles Darwin to Thomas Jefferson to Mark Twain.
In 1768, for instance, Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander boarded the Endeavor for a three-year circumnavigation of the globe. Among the specimens he brought back were “skin and bones of a creature with a head like a deer, said to rise up on two legs … to go bounding across the grasslands of Australia like a hare.” A fellow explorer christened the creature “kanguru.” Locals, of course, had known the marsupial forever.
Author Richard Conniff has made a career out of writing about animals, and even dabbled in a bit of naturalist behavior himself. In “The Species Seekers” he chronicles two centuries of adventure, and at the same time illustrates important developments in human thought. For as explorers prowled far off beaches and forests, they began to ask questions about the earth, its species, and human origins.