A Mixture of Spirit and Deed
Not so long ago, most of the world was an unexplored wilderness. The animals, plants, and people that inhabited the lands beyond Europe were unknown, at least as far as the Western world was concerned. The rivers and jungles of the Amazon, the Badlands of Patagonia and of the American West, the tropical forests of Indonesia, the savannah and center of Africa, the vast interior of Central Asia, the polar regions, and the many chains of islands that dot the oceans were complete mysteries.
And, while our knowledge of the world’s living inhabitants was slim, our grasp of our planet’s past was nonexistent. Fossils had been known for millennia, but they were seen in the light of local mythologies about dragons and other imagined creatures, not in the light of natural science.
Our sense of the time scale of life on earth? Vague and vastly off the mark.
And our picture of our own species’ history? A set of fantastic myths and fairy tales.
The explorations of the previously unseen parts of the world and the unearthing of the history of life and our origins are some of the greatest achievements in human history. This book tells the stories of some of the most dramatic adventures and important discoveries in two centuries of natural history— from the epic journeys of pioneering naturalists to the expeditions making headlines today — and how they inspired and have expanded one of the greatest ideas of modern science: evolution.
We will encounter many amazing creatures of the past and present, but the most remarkable creatures in these stories are the men and women. They are, without exception, remarkable people who have experienced and accomplished extraordinary things. They have lived the kinds of lives that Twain extolled— they walked where no others had walked, saw what no one else had seen, and thought what no one else had thought.
The people in these stories followed their dreams— to travel to faraway lands, to see wild and exotic places, to collect beautiful, rare, or strange animals, or to find the remains of extinct beasts or human ancestors. Very few started out with any notion of great achievement or fame. Several lacked formal education or training. Rather, they were driven by a passion to explore nature, and they were willing, sometimes eager, to take great risks to pursue their dreams. Many faced the perils of traveling long distances by sea. Some confronted the extreme climates of deserts, jungles, or the Arctic. Many left behind skeptical and anxious loved ones, and a few endured years of unimaginable loneliness.
Their triumphs were much more than survival and the collecting of specimens from around the world. A few pioneers, provoked by a riot of diversity beyond their wildest imaginations, were transformed from collectors into scientists. They posed and pondered the most fundamental questions about Nature. Their answers sparked a revolution that changed, profoundly and forever, our perception of the living world and our place within it.
Unlike their privileged countrymen back in the universities, churches, and drawing rooms of Europe, most of whom believed that the origins of living things was a matter outside the realm of natural science, these explorers asked not just what existed, but wondered how and why these creatures came to be. Unlike their teachers, who pursued a natural theology that interpreted everything in Nature as part of the design of a Creator — peaceful, harmonious, stable, and unchanging — this new cadre of naturalists discovered that Nature was, in fact, a dynamic and perpetual battleground in which creatures competed and struggled to survive, a war in which they either adapted and changed or were exterminated. Unlike their predecessors, who explained the distribution of living species in the world much as one would the instant and premeditated placement of pieces on a chessboard, these naturalists discovered that the world and the life it contained had a very long history that shaped where various plants and animals were found across the globe. And, unlike their contemporaries who viewed everything in Nature as being purposely created for man’s benefit and domination, they rejected that conceit and placed humans within the animal kingdom, with our own earthly origins.
The torch of this revolution has been passing from generation to generation of scientists who have been walking, literally and figuratively, in the footsteps of these pioneers.
A mixture of spirit and deed
My goals in writing this book are to bring to life the pursuit and the pleasure of scientific discovery, at the same time capturing the significance of each advance for evolutionary science. The idea here is that science is far better understood and enjoyed, and made memorable, when we follow the bumpy roads of the scientists that led, eventually, to their achievements. It is not an original idea. Like the naturalists described here who trod in their predecessors’ footsteps, I am following the lead of authors such as Paul de Kruif (Microbe Hunters) and C. W. Ceram (Gods, Graves, and Scholars), whose works brought the passion and excitement of the glory days of microbiology and archaeology, respectively, to many readers. The stories I tell were chosen for both their dramatic content and scientific importance. I have, I confess, "cherry-picked" the rich lore of natural history for the best of the best.
Ceram described adventure as "a mixture of spirit and deed." These stories are intended to capture those two elements in a compact form. They are crafted for enjoyment, not as scholarly biographies or histories of science. I have not delved into the biographical depth that would be necessary in full-length treatments. I have provided some background where I thought it would offer insights into who or what kindled the spirit of adventure in these naturalists and scientists.
Wherever possible I relied on field notes, journals, expedition reports, and other firsthand accounts because they tend to contain the person’s thoughts and reactions at critical moments. I also examined original scientific papers because they are the material of record of what exactly was found, concluded, and proposed. Many of the individuals or discoveries described here have also been the subject of one, several, or many excellent books, some written in the first person and others by biographers. You will find the many sources I relied on in "Sources and Further Reading," at the back of the book, and I certainly encourage you to explore them. I had a blast researching these stories.
This book is not a compendium of the greatest evolutionary scientists or discoveries (although many here would certainly be on any such list), nor is it a history of the field. But the individuals here do represent very well the spirit of the enterprise, and many scientists, myself included, have drawn inspiration from one or more of them. So if you sense a lack of objectivity and a hagiographic bent, I am guilty as charged. There is much to admire in the protagonists of these stories. I have not paid attention to whether someone was a good citizen, good with money, or even a good spouse (some were, some weren’t). These people had (or have) very rewarding and satisfying lives because of the great pleasure they gained from what they have done. I did ...