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Every Living Thing

Hardcover / ISBN-13: 9781529400465

Price: £25

ON SALE: 11th April 2024

Genre: Mathematics & Science

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The dramatic, globe-spanning and meticulously-researched story of two scientific rivals and their race to survey all life.

In the 18th century, two men dedicated their lives to the same daunting task: identifying and describing all life on Earth. Their approaches could not have been more different. 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, ever-changing swirl of complexities. Both began believing their work to be difficult, but not impossible–how could the planet possibly hold more than a few thousand species? Stunned by life’s diversity, both fell far short of their goal. But in the process they articulated starkly divergent views on nature, on humanity’s role in shaping the fate of our planet, and on humanity itself.

The rivalry between these two unique, driven individuals created reverberations that still echo today. Linnaeus, with the help of acolyte explorers he called “apostles” (only half of whom returned alive), gave the world such concepts as mammal, primate and homo sapiens–but he also denied species change and promulgated racist pseudo-science. Buffon coined the term reproduction, formulated early prototypes of evolution and genetics, and argued passionately against prejudice. It was a clash that, during their lifetimes, Buffon seemed to be winning. But their posthumous fates would take a very different turn.

With elegant, propulsive prose grounded in more than a decade of research, bestselling author Jason Roberts tells an unforgettable true-life tale of intertwined lives and enduring legacies, tracing an arc of insight and discovery that extends across three centuries into the present day.

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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 18th century tell a story at once important, outrageous, enlightening, entertaining, enduring, and still evolving.
Dava Sobel, author of The Glass Universe, Galileo’s Daughter, and Longitude
A lively, panoramic contribution to the history of science.
Illuminating . . . an enthralling look at a pivotal period in the history of biology.
Publishers Weekly
Jason Roberts brings an amazing episode in the European scientific enlightenment of the 1700s to life in following the entwined careers of Buffon and Linnaeus. Naming all the species on Earth was their aim, and these two very different, brilliant polymaths progressed a long way in their aims. Jason Roberts strides confidently through a great sweep of history, introducing all the characters with verve and humour
Professor Mike Benton
Absorbing and lucidly written . . . In this fascinating and constantly surprising book, Jason Roberts brilliantly mines the philosophical and practical differences between the two men, demonstrating how de Buffon, although eclipsed by his rival in later centuries, may have the last laugh.
Country Life