Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Book review: "Every Living Thing" by Rob Dunn

The subtitle of this book, "Man's Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys" caught my eye as I was looking through a book sale table. Being one of those who desires to contribute to this quest, I was delighted to find it. The book is an enjoyable overview of selected personalities whose lives and work define (for the author) the growth of our knowledge of biodiversity. Their stories are told with understanding and humour.

Starting with indigenous knowledge of biota, he introduces us to Linnaeus and Leeunwenhoek before describing modern scientists whose work has increased our appreciation for the diversity of life and expanded our understanding of its limits. The journey described is one that progresses from a focus on the species with greatest impact on daily life, to an understanding that "the rest of life does not revolve around us, nor is it like us (p. 247)". Comparing this discovery to the Copernican revolution, he argues that there remains the need for humility in assessing our knowledge and acheivements in discovering the natural world.

A major theme of the book is the obsessiveness that drives the scientists who are described. Being one who shares a similar outlook, I can sympathise with the men and women described. Indeed, I find myself wishing I could be (to a certain extent) in their shoes. However, I don't know if someone who doesn't have the same drive and desires would find the portrayals heroic or pathetic. As the author describes,
"If systematists are socializing, it means, to many of them, simply time they are not looking at the organisms they really love. The obscurity of the things on which taxonomists work does not lessen their focus. In fact, it may heighten it. To dig into their subject, they have to dig so far in, focus so intensely, that the rest of the world seems farther and farther away." (p. 101)
Balance is important, and many of the best taxonomists I've met understand that. But it is hard, when there's so many fascinating and beautiful creatures out there not to succumb to the temptation.

In summary, "Every Living Thing" is an accessible and enjoyable book that tells the story of a few of the personalities who have contributed to the classification and discovery of the organisms we share this world with.

Dunn, R. 2009. Every Living Thing. Man's Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys. HarperCollins, New York.

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