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1 May 2007 BIOLOGICAL COLLECTIONS: THE BASIS OF EVOLUTIONARY THEORY
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Robert Kohler says he wrote All Creatures: Naturalists, Collectors, and Biodiversity, 1850–1950 to answer the question, “Hundreds of expeditions launched to every corner of the world: millions of specimens assembled and lovingly preserved—what made that happen?” In typical historian fashion, Kohler documents his answer to that question with 776 endnotes—a gold mine of information for anyone wanting to explore further. He writes an excessively long (90-page) introduction before he ever gets to the major collecting expeditions, discussing patterns of land use and recreation across the United States (which is important for documenting his idea that hunting, fishing, and camping were the ancestral requirements for large-scale collecting). Kohler also provides an excellent discussion of how Americans' view of nature evolved over 100 years, noting that amateur collections of birds' eggs and other biological specimens turned out to be valuable additions to the collections of major museums. Kohler's skillful writing helped sustain my interest through the parts of his discussion that I thought were quite outside the main themes of the book.

The title All Creatures is an exaggeration—the book refers only to creatures with fur or feathers, and only to collections within the United States. Insects get very short shrift, and slugs, snails, worms, and other invertebrates none at all. Kohler has a few comments on botanical collections, and I hope he writes another book on exploring the world for plants. He generally stays within the subtitle's 1850–1950 boundaries, but he does mention DNA at the end of the volume, and understandably so: Data and methods developed from 1950 to date have totally revised our concepts of how to classify collections, especially insect collections.

Chapter 3, “Patrons,” describes how important the millionaires were in supporting grand expeditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with their small armies of men ready to kill every bird and animal in their gun sights. Although Kohler says the records are complete, he avoids telling us how many thousands of animals were killed in the cause of obtaining specimens for museums. The mass slaughter would be prohibited today by law and, perhaps more important, condemned by public sentiment for conservation. Kohler does not indicate whether there is any evidence that the scientists who were complicit in the slaughter contributed to the extinction of any species. Patrons were essential for obtaining the big game animals and an entire family group of elephants for the American Museum. We are fortunate that these collections were made then, and they are still enchanting millions of visitors. It would be virtually impossible to construct such multimillion-dollar dioramas today.

The next big challenge I see for museums is to make dioramas of insects that truly show their incredibly detailed morphology. The simplistic ones at the American Museum and the Field Museum show only caricatures of insects, lacking all their wondrous detail. I am waiting for an exhibit based on scanning electron microscopes that will show insects as they really are. The current crop of nature videos appears to be attempting to make all Americans hate and fear insects. Kohler claims that “tiny insects and invertebrates lack the human appeal” that led to dioramas and collecting expeditions, but that is the fault of our education, not the fault of the insects, which are much more spectacular than most birds. People cannot relate to creatures they can hardly see. Correct scientific depictions of insects could help recruit the army of new taxonomists needed to tackle the millions of incredible insects in the rainforests.

The illustrations in All Creatures are mostly photographs of people who did the collecting. I was disappointed that there were no illustrations of the field data sheets used to record information, and no photographs of the equipment used during the expeditions. There are few good photographs of people actually working, although there is a wonderful shot of Francis Sumner with his half-car, half-truck, taken in 1920 in the Panamint Mountains of California. In spite of “accurate” records, in one photograph the burro “Pardo” is identified but the collector is only “possibly” J. H. Barry, collecting for the American Museum in Mexico. Another unknown collector is shown with more than 60 skins drying in the Mexican sun in 1904. It is clear that the all-important specimens are well labeled, but the photographs of people are not. Of the four men examining the Rothschild bird collection being unpacked in February 1935 at the American Museum, only Ernst Mayr is identified.

Few women are shown, not even Annie Alexander, one of the founders and a patron of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley. There is a wonderful shot of Edith Clements repairing the field vehicle while the men are off collecting, however. Women played a small but important role in many of the early expeditions, in striking contrast to circumstances today, when women make up about half of field researchers and collectors.

I am much impressed with Kohler's knowledge and appreciation of taxonomists and how they work. As he points out, taxonomy has been a second-class biological occupation, usually dismissed as unimportant and second-rate by experimental biologists. I am an ecologist–behaviorist who has been forced to do taxonomy on flies and mites because I could find no one to study my collections. My brief exposure to taxonomy convinced me that it is amazingly difficult. Even big animals such as giraffes are still causing taxonomic dispute. I applaud Kohler for his sympathy for the taxonomists, who do not often get much credit.

Although All Creatures supposedly ends at 1950, it mentions E. O. Wilson's 1980 plea for a complete inventory of world species. Kohler questions why we “spend billions exploring extraplanetary space but balk at the cost of exploring our own earthly environment.” I think this is another manifestation of how the military-industrial complex rules our world. The world for the taxonomist is not likely to change until insects become weapons of mass destruction.

Taxonomists who feel depressed about their lack of recognition should read this book. Experimental biologists who believe in the superiority of their own approach should also read it to learn that the whole field of evolutionary biology is supported at the roots by the taxonomists.

CARL W. RETTENMEYER "BIOLOGICAL COLLECTIONS: THE BASIS OF EVOLUTIONARY THEORY," BioScience 57(5), 450-451, (1 May 2007). https://doi.org/10.1641/B570512
Published: 1 May 2007
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