As someone with a prior and ongoing interest in the history of extinction, I’ve been following a new column in the New York Times by science writer Richard Conniff with some interest over the past few weeks.
The column’s called “Specimens”, and it purports to trace “the search for life” amongst naturalists by looking
beyond Darwin’s accomplishments to find a number of colorful characters whose discoveries of new species have transformed our lives in ways we scarcely recognize.
Interesting. Now, how has Conniff pursued this vein – how has he elucidated the ways species discovery has impacted “our lives”? I’m having trouble figuring this out myself – while each essay is interesting in its own way, none has revealed the transformation of lives via species discovery, at least on my reading.
So far, he’s posted a memoir of his late mother-in-law’s natural-historical interests, hagiography for fallen naturalists, an attack on imperial readings of natural history, a somewhat scattered sketch on the relationship between science and c19 nonsense literature, and (most recently) a meditation on the history of the idea of extinction.
I acknowledge that Conniff’s essayistic approach (and its context in the Opinionator section of the Times) needn’t be scholarly in order to be successful, and that the Series’ description may be misleading. Still, I wonder whether part of the point is that it’s *hard* to trace the real-world (or even imagined) significance of species discovery for “our lives.”
Maybe this is why E.O. Wilson has spent so much time (largely unsuccessfully) attempting to forge a vocabulary in which to inscribe these effects for modern readers. Biophilia, Consilience, and The Creation can each be read as a gesture in this direction, and, in the relative failure of each to take hold in the language of everyday life (or even in the conservation movement, beyond ritual obeisance), I think we catch something interesting:
It’s hard to translate the “interests of science” to the “public interest” in a way that extends beyond utilitarian appeals and remains *effective* – that is, produces effects.
A possible take-away point: the history of science, especially in recent efforts to trouble the boundary between “science” and “the public,” affords interesting cases of precisely this sort of effort. Might not these past efforts, and the historians who attend on them, have something to say to those engaged in making issues that are live for scientists live for the public on whose goodwill (and, especially for naturalists and organismic biologists, tax-dollars) their work depends?