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All Creatures: Naturalists, Collectors, and Biodiversity, 1850-1950

by Robert E. Kohler
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2006
380 pp. illus. 56 b/w, including maps and tables. Trade, $35.00 
ISBN: 0-691-12539-8.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg


All Creatures tells the tale of the legacy of the Victorian Linnaean quest for the encyclopedic documentation of nature. It focuses on the history of North American natural history museums and provides a fascinating and highly readable account of how and why scientific collections were built up through surveys that reached their zenith in the late 19th and early 20th Century. It is particularly interesting in that it reveals how taxonomic studies were bolstered not only by the desire for partaking in adventurous expeditions but because of emerging popular outdoor pursuits associated with the rise of the middle class and the democratization of leisure as morally sanctioned recreation.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the revelation that the full flowering of the 20th Century study of biodiversity is due not only to the changing practices of collecting but due to the unanticipated productive intersection of vacation culture and science. It is in part, the fascinating story of how the scientific art form of the diorama created such an enduring public interest that it forced curators to not only build new collections but to conduct field research and gather the contextual documentation needed to produce scientifically useful collections to better serve the public, the patrons and the state. In all this, it is interesting to keep in mind that though the great surveys are largely a thing of the past - with the ranks of taxonomists thinning and aging, and collecting having become a thoroughly evil thing to do in the naïve popular imagination, natural history surveys remain important parts of the conservation movement. This is especially the case in the developing world where biodiversity is far less well documented and where extinction rates are highest.

Perhaps the most well known case in the mass media today is the project in West Papua by Conservation International. The discovery of so many new species on last year’s two week visit to the Foja mountains reveals how little we still know about some of the most threatened parts of our endangered planet. To visit such rare places is in a sense to return to the Garden of Eden for the birds are yet fearless and perform their astounding mating displays unconcerned, the ultimate reward for latter day adventurers and scientists reveling in Darwinian wonder and delight. To all those mesmerized by these new photographs and film footage, particularly of the bower birds and birds of paradise, All Creatures will be a fascinating and compelling book for it provides a historical perspective on how natural history collections are built and why they are so important. In short, for the ever growing community of people around the world who are emotionally and intellectually charmed by nature and the increasingly urgent quest to actively become friends rather than enemies of the earth, this book will become a prized and well examined specimen in their book cases.

Interestingly enough, Kohler concludes that new forms of cultural consumption and popular concern for the environment will inform future survey practices in terms of how they combine expeditionary and project work. Ideally, in the Papuan case and in other developments in Indonesia and elsewhere, the continuing imperative for collection and survey provides an excellent context for charting a course for empowering local communities to claim and protect their natural heritage. One can only hope that this will encourage local communities and local and national governments to conserve rather than destroy their natural resources - which in most tropical cases have never been surveyed extensively never mind selectively. Indeed, as All Creatures details, surveys require a functioning civil society and a popular imagination that is actively and creatively engaged with nature. While this conjunction of interests has been well established in the developed world since the late 1800’s, the task is just beginning in the developing world where "native" knowledge has been traditionally discounted by the modern state and indigenous rights ignored for the development of extractive economies.

As taxonomists and ecologists begin to penetrate these last undocumented natural domains, the Linnaean concept of the species and subsequently the layman’s understanding of debates over sub-species will find themselves in dire need of a book like this. Herein All Creatures deftly relates how these categories themselves change with time. It aptly demonstrates how collecting practices shape taxonomic categorizations that are in turn shaped by changing collecting practices themselves. Doing so, Kohler reveals how classification practices have changed over the last two hundred years of collection, that is, during the three ages of exploration and empire, then survey and lastly, ecology. As he relates, the process began serendipitously, then, became increasingly extensive and intensive culminating in the highly localized ecologically contextualized studies that have characterized the field since the 1940’s and 1950’s.

In the process, evolutionary biologists have come to understand the species not as fixed categories, but as a constantly changing and highly variable population, that is, no longer through focusing attention on discrete specimens. This critical theoretical shift came about due to the extensive geographic collections assembled during the age of survey and it had important theoretical consequences. For example, in delving into the historical debates over sub-species as incipient species, Kohler shows how it was only through deep and comprehensive survey collecting that scientist were able to adequately investigate sub-species variation. Thus we learn how collectors focus on entire ranges and especially on critical boundaries in order to be able to discern the gaps or discontinuities that exist between species.

Accordingly, this book constitutes a culturally informed historical view of knowledge production, specifically concerning biodiversity. It is doubly important today because of the twin ecological and intellectual crisis that we face. Kohler’s work is fundamentally important here in that its intellectual fecundity reveals why post-modernist anthropological knowledge about identity and knowledge as unstable and emergent is essential to understanding the historical evolution of scientific knowledge. This is all in very sharp contrast to the incomprehension amongst mainstream biological anthropologists as to the importance of post-structuralist cultural anthropology to the study of biology. As such this book makes a vital contribution to the popular understanding of how knowledge emerges, how it is constructed and how it changes, why, and much more. Kohler’s great contribution in all this is that his study reveals how identity, popular culture and science can inform each other in completely unanticipated ways.



Updated 1st July 2007

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