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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 44.
- Review Date: 2008-10-06
- Reviewer: Staff
Dunn, a biologist at North Carolina State University, does an admirable job of exploring the human drive to find and understand the manifold forms of life that surround them. With his light and enjoyable style, he also provides fascinating character sketches of some of the scientists (“often obsessive, usually brilliant, occasionally half-mad”) who made the most important discoveries, with enough scientific context for readers to understand their significance. Dunn ranges from Antoine van Leeuwenhoek's amazing microscopic discoveries in the scientific backwater of 17th-century Delft to a major 20th-century undertaking to explore life near deep sea vents where the ocean floor is expanding. But Dunn has a deeper message: “life is more diverse and less like us than we had imagined.” Indeed, he says, humans are far from central in the story of life's evolution on Earth; most life is microscopic, living in and deeply below the soil and likely comprising at least half of the planet's biomass. Finally, Dunn writes about scientific hubris: virtually every scientific prediction about conditions limiting life have been proven incorrect. (Jan.)
More than life itself
In Genesis, the first task God gives man is to name the living things of the Earth. To this day, the desire to discover and categorize the creatures of our world continuesand the creatures we discover have only become more and more remarkable. In Every Living Thing: Man's Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys, biologist Rob Dunn traces the beginnings of modern biology back to two men: Leeuwenhoek, who peered through his self-made microscope and learned that life could be smaller than anyone had imagined, and Linnaeus, who believed it was his destiny to name all creatures.
From these two explorers grew a search that has discovered lifeforms not in the thousands (as Linnaeus predicted), but in the millions. Life that exists in teeming multitudes of insect species suspended in the trees above the jungle floor. Life that spreads across that jungle floor, a single acre holding a thousand times more diversity than the entirety of Linnaeus' native Sweden. Life that lives in superheated poisonous vents at the deepest depths of the oceans and perhaps even life that thrives in the airless, radiation-soaked distances of space. Every Living Thing is a journey into the marvelous, miraculous and unimaginable realm of life.
It is also a journey into the equally marvelous minds of the men and women who seek to discover, name and understand everything within that realm. Dunn looks into their stories, revealing brilliance mixed with wildness, obsession with vision, perseverance with stubbornness, all wrapped up in the desire to know. From forests heights to the sea floor, from the confines of a petri dish to the vastness of the stars, the reader travels through the domain of life, with Dunn serving as a biologist's Virgil.
Writing with heart and light touches of humor, Dunn steers the lay reader through the heady, improbable reaches of biology without getting lost in Latin names or technical theory. Engaging, compelling and as thoroughly fascinating as life itself, Every Living Thing is a masterful view into the world of biological scienceand one that will leave the reader looking at life with wonder.
Howard Shirley writes from Franklin, Tennessee.