Every Living Thing: The Great and Deadly Race to Know All Life by Jason Roberts - review by Charles Elliott

Charles Elliott

Is It a Bird? Is It a Flea?

Every Living Thing: The Great and Deadly Race to Know All Life


riverrun 407pp £25

The title of this splendid book may sound a bit hyperbolic. Be assured that it isn’t. What Jason Roberts largely succeeds in doing here is sorting out the extraordinary story of the long and disputatious struggle to grasp, name and codify the entire range of the world’s living things. A scientific enterprise older than science itself, it is still not complete.

Of the dozens of scholars involved in the attempt, two are central to Roberts’s narrative. Carl Linnaeus, an impoverished Swedish schoolmaster and sometime doctor, is one; the other is a wealthy French aristocrat named Georges-Louis de Buffon, who began his career as a moneyed rogue given to duelling. Both were determined to make sense of the outdated muddle of categories and classifications still being used to describe the natural world in the 18th century. From the time of Aristotle onwards, others had tried – the French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort invented a system involving no fewer than 643 categories, all of which needed to be memorised before they could be used. Linnaeus and Buffon were more realistic and both achieved fame for their success – partial as it may have been – in systematising the apparent chaos. That they achieved this using competing approaches and tirelessly recorded their findings gives Every Living Thing its dramatic core.

Linnaeus’s first big idea was a sensational one. His botanical observations led him to conclude that plants – and, by extension, animals – could be classified according to their sexual characteristics. To a degree, this worked as an organisational principle, although the focus on sex predictably offended public propriety. His

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