Publication Date: March 12, 2024
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The sweeping, dramatic history of two scientific rivals and their mission to survey all life—a clash of ideas that had profound consequences for humanity—from the bestselling author of A Sense of the World.
In the eighteenth century, two men dedicated their lives to the same daunting task: identifying and describing all life on Earth. Their approaches, however, 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 swirl of complexities. Both began believing their task 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? Stunned by life’s diversity, both fell far short of their goal. But in the process, they articulated starkly divergent views on nature and on humanity itself.
The rivalry between these two unique, driven individuals created reverberations that still echo today. Linnaeus, with the help of acolytes he called “apostles,” 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, and shape our scientific understanding of the world today.
With elegant, propulsive prose grounded in more than a decade of obsessive research, featuring appearances by Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Darwin, 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.
Story Locale:18th century Europe
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