"Specimens" in the New York Times

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?


4 thoughts on “"Specimens" in the New York Times

  1. Dan

    Henry: Isn't the optimal script in this case a variation on the one that the physical sciences adopted mid-century?: Basic sciences leads to better living. For the specific case of species, I imagine you can point to medical advances, drugs discovered, etc.

    Or it may be that naturalists need to re-convince the world that natural history counts as science, that taxonomy is as legitimate as experiment.

    I wonder, however, if it wouldn't be even smarter to think about natural history as “information” work. Make naturalists kin to googlers: people charged with organizing the world's information.


  2. Hank

    Hi Dan: All of these seem reasonable, though I was reaching for something more than the utilitarian framework (material benefits), as Wilson has and as, I think, Conniff might.

    As to whether naturalists need to “re-convince” the world – I think they might need to *convince* them. The mid-century physical sciences moment you point to was *part of* the marginalization of natural history, and a redefinition of science in the public eye (at least to a certain extent) can help explain the problem.

    Whether “”taxonomy is legitimate as experiment” is something else entirely, to my mind. I see the point about information, though that makes them akin to archivists, who have their own problems with the public interest..


  3. Lukas

    Sorry, are you assuming that the interests of scientists and those of the public DO align? I mean, of course they might align in any particular circumstance. But is there any reason to think they must align?

    I guess my own preference is for a quasi-economic view. Scientists want resources because that is what helps them do their work, write papers, get tenure, satisfy their curiosity, etc. To get access to more resources they usually have to make arguments about the utility of their research. Now, I'm not saying those arguments are necessarily or always going to be disingenuous. I personally know some conservation geneticists who I am convinced are motivated primarily by the desire to protect biodiversity for its own sake. And I'm sure there are cancer biologists who are motivated by a desire to help patients. But this need not be so. And in the end I am not sure it matters very much. What matters is that you manage to convince government, the public, or some funding body that your research will contribute to the greater good, regardless of what your own views on the subject are.

    What about the humanities? Why do we invest resources in people who, say, spend their lives studying Shakespeare or Donne? Sure, you can make some argument about the utilitarian dimension of this research, but I guess I feel like the benefits of this work has more to do with being interesting than having a material impact on our world. The same, I think, goes for a lot of natural history research.


  4. Hank

    Hi Lukas:

    So, no, I think you're right to point out that we don't want to assume the alignment (ideal or real) between the two, though I think there are two ways I might respond to your point:

    1. Even if the right model is an economic one (though you know what I think about the contingency of the rational-actors-wielding-cultural-resources model you're drawing on to a certain extent), we might want to figure out how scientists are able to convince the public to fill their pecuniary needs. The question still stands, right.

    2. Let's say they are aligned or that they could be: it's possible that our vocabulary, evacuated of moral or spiritual terms where science meets society, would fail to capture certain valences of that alignment or the influence of one upon the other. Nay?

    Lukas, I always appreciate when the philosopher in you comes out (Beginning with “Sorry”).




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