Every Living Thing : Man's Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys
Biologists and laypeople alike have repeatedly claimed victory over life. A thousand years ago we thought we knew almost everything; a hundred years ago, too. But even today, Rob Dunn argues, discoveries we can't yet imagine still await.
In a series of vivid portraits of single-minded scientists, Dunn traces the history of human discovery, from the establishment of classification in the eighteenth century to today's attempts to find life in space. The narrative telescopes from a scientist's attempt to find one single thing (a rare ant-emulating beetle species) to another scientist's attempt to find everything in a small patch of jungle in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. With poetry and humor, Dunn reminds readers how tough and exhilarating it is to study the natural world, and why it matters.
Dunn, a biologist at North Carolina State University, does an admirable job of exploring the human drive to find and understand the manifold forms of life that surround them. With his light and enjoyable style, he also provides fascinating character sketches of some of the scientists (often obsessive, usually brilliant, occasionally half-mad) who made the most important discoveries, with enough scientific context for readers to understand their significance. Dunn ranges from Antoine van Leeuwenhoek's amazing microscopic discoveries in the scientific backwater of 17th-century Delft to a major 20th-century undertaking to explore life near deep sea vents where the ocean floor is expanding. But Dunn has a deeper message: life is more diverse and less like us than we had imagined. Indeed, he says, humans are far from central in the story of life's evolution on Earth; most life is microscopic, living in and deeply below the soil and likely comprising at least half of the planet's biomass. Finally, Dunn writes about scientific hubris: virtually every scientific prediction about conditions limiting life have been proven incorrect. (Jan.)
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December 01, 2008
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