Finding and naming plants, animals, bugs and germs might seem a dull scientific career, but Dunn (Zoology/North Carolina State Univ.) proves that it’s the opposite in this vivid history full of colorful characters and spectacular discoveries.
In his first book, the author points out that every culture since the dawn of history named every visible living thing in its vicinity. Each taxonomy was unique, but this didn’t matter until 17th-century biologists began communicating. To make certain they were discussing the same creature, they used increasingly long descriptive terms in their common language, Latin. It took single-minded Swede Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) to rationalize this lugubrious system by reducing every name to a description of related species (Canis are dog-like mammals) followed by a unique descriptive term (Canis lupus are wolves, Canis latrans are coyotes). While best known for this achievement, Linnaeus’s lifetime goal was to catalog every living thing. He did well with larger life forms but paid little attention to insects and microbes which, Dunn emphasizes, make up 99 percent of life both in numbers and sheer bulk. The author offers entertaining accounts of scientists who, mostly over the past 50 years, filled in this gap. Terry Erwin squirted insecticide high up a single tropical tree and collected the thousands of unknown arthropods that rained down. Carl Woese examined the nucleic acid of bacteria and discovered microorganisms so different that they weren’t bacteria at all but a new, primitive kingdom called archaea. Edson Bastin cultured microorganisms from the bottom of oil wells, beginning the successful search for life deep inside the earth.
Even sophisticated readers will blink as the author reveals the dazzling diversity of life, its ability to thrive in areas formerly thought barren (miles under the sea, under ice caps, under the earth’s crust, in space), and the ingenuity of scientists searching for it.