An epic, extraordinary account of rivalry and obsession in the quest to survey all of life on Earth—a competition whose consequences still reverberate today—from the bestselling author of A Sense of the World
In the eighteenth century, two men—exact contemporaries and polar opposites—dedicated their lives to the same daunting task: identifying and describing all life on Earth. Carl Linnaeus, a pious Swedish doctor with a huckster’s flair, believed that life belonged in tidy, static categories. Georges-Louis de Buffon, an aristocratic polymath and keeper of France’s royal garden, viewed life as a dynamic swirl of complexities. Each began his task believing it to be difficult but not impossible: How could the planet possibly hold more than a few thousand species—or as many could fit on Noah’s Ark?
Both fell far short of their goal, but in the process they articulated starkly divergent views on nature, the future of the Earth, and humanity itself. Linnaeus gave the world such concepts as mammal, primate, and Homo sapiens, but he also denied that species change and he promulgated racist pseudoscience. Buffon formulated early prototypes of evolution and genetics, warned of global climate change, and argued passionately against prejudice. The clash of their conflicting worldviews continued well after their deaths, as their successors contended for dominance in the emerging science that came to be called biology.
In Every Living Thing, Jason Roberts weaves a sweeping, unforgettable narrative spell, exploring the intertwined lives and legacies of Linnaeus and Buffon—as well as the groundbreaking, often fatal adventures of their acolytes—to trace an arc of insight and discovery that extends across three centuries into the present day.
About the Author
Jason Roberts is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. His previous book, A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler, was a national bestseller and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. A contributor to McSweeney’s, The Believer, and other publications, he lives in Northern California.
“A skillfully told, ambitious-in-the-best-possible way tale about hubris, curiosity, rivalry, and deep, deep obsession. These two men’s impossible race to catalogue the entirety of the natural world winds up illuminating some of the best and worst stuff about being human.”—Jon Mooallem, author of This Is Chance!
“Barely a dozen letters of the alphabet suffice to categorize every star in the cosmos, but when it comes to naming and classifying living things, the job gets more complicated. As Jason Roberts reveals in this vibrant scientific saga, taxonomists take up their mission with a mix of insight and foresight, colored by their moment in history, not to mention their foibles, their vanity, and their all-too-human prejudices. The thousands of definitive two-part labels given to plants and animals since the eighteenth century tell a story at once important, outrageous, enlightening, entertaining, enduring, and still evolving.”—Dava Sobel, author of Longitude