Curious Species: How Animals Made Natural History

Yale Univ. Nov. 2023. 328p. ISBN 9780300266184. $40. NAT HIST
For historian Robles, naturalists’ investigations of the animal kingdom in the 18th century are a good lens through which to view the quest for knowledge and humankind’s place within the so-called natural order. As they delineate, classify, and rank species, scientists reveal their own prejudices and the limits of fully knowing another type of mind, Robles argues. Four animals serve as illustrative examples: plant- and rock-like corals question the definition of “animal”; rattlesnakes are emblematic of the unknown dangers of nature; preserved fish specimens show the distorting lens of technology; and raccoons’ human-like dexterity and curiosity decenters people as investigators of the world. Each history-focused chapter is metaphorically rich, and Robles mines the language and practices of natural history for insights into the colonialist, racist, and sexist attitudes that often underlie scientific endeavor. The historical studies are followed by firsthand accounts of Robles’s own interactions with the animals and environments at hand, letting her offer experiential insight into the natural scientists and the species themselves.
VERDICT Historians and biologists will enjoy this thoughtful history of how the animal kingdom was mapped out and how people are still discovering their place within it.
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