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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Book Review: The Remarkable Life of William Beebe

July 29, 2008

The Remarkable Life of William Beebe: Explorer and Naturalist
By Carol Grant Gould
Island Press, 2004
Reviewed by Eric Dinerstein

The Mount Rushmore of modern-day conservation biology is easy to imagine. From left to right gaze the likenesses of E.O.Wilson, Dan Janzen, Gordon Orians, John Terborgh, and Michael Soul?. The pure field biologists who have left their mark on our discipline, George Schaller and Jacques-Yves Cousteau, deserve space as well. But who preceded them? When you quiz students or amateur naturalists to identify our forefathers, most draw blanks after naming Aldo Leopold. Now, thanks to this delightful biography by Carol Grant Gould, a towering figure has been resurrected from near anonymity, a man who combined the great gifts of all those on our Mount Rushmore: the unique William Beebe.

Beebe’s greatest feat — descending in a tiny bathysphere a half-mile beneath the surface of the ocean in the 1930s — won him worldwide acclaim. But it may also have unjustly overshadowed his pioneering work in natural history and what became the fields of ornithology, ichthyology, community ecology, and conservation biology.

Beebe’s passion for nature emerged at an early age. He collected and learned the names of insects, birds, and marine organisms. Taxonomy became his diligent pursuit, and as a teenager, he was recognized as someone of great promise by the leading biologists of his day. In 1893, at the age of 16 , Beebe penned this line in his journal: “To be a Naturalist is better than to be a King.”

His desire to study an entire ecosystem from top to bottom instead of single species and to focus on species interactions became the hallmark of his idea of science. Exploring the islands of Lake George, New York, he came up with the idea that islands would be well suited for study: “It would be great fun to take one of these small islands (or better still a tropical one) and work up the fauna and flora thoroughly,” he wrote. We now have the source of inspiration for the pioneering work of E. O. Wilson and Dan Simberloff in the Florida Keys, the studies on Barro Colorado Island by the scientists of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, or, more recently, the work of John Terborgh and his colleagues on the population interactions of plants and vertebrates on islands created by hydro-projects in Venezuela.

The Remarkable Life of William Beebe is divided into four parts: Naturalist, Ornithologist, Marine Biologist, and Tropical Biologist. There are many wonderful anecdotes in each section that capture the joys of the eureka moments in natural history, moments that must have been commonplace for a biologist with an eye as keen as Beebe’s. I loved most the accounts of Beebe in the Himalayas in search of the magnificent pheasant species of this region. I will never again look upon a wild pheasant without thinking of Beebe’s heroic travels to document the biology of this fascinating group of birds. Just as Beebe skillfully illuminates the life histories of so many tropical species and their complex interactions, Gould lights up the life of this poorly known savant of the natural world. There is no higher compliment to pay a biographer than the observation that she never seems to stand in the way of the reader’s getting to know her subject.

Gould points out that Beebe’s intuition about nature was way ahead of the textbooks. This biography should be one of the texts used in every introductory course in conservation biology and community ecology along with Beebe’s own works. At last, students will read passages that inspire and show them the roots of our science:

“Some day, if we do not delay until the destroying hand of man is laid over this whole region, we may hope partially to disentangle the web. Then, instead of a seeming tangle of unconnected events, all will be seen in their real perspective: The flower adapted to the insect; the insect hiding from this or that enemy; the bird showing off its beauties to its mate or searching for its particular food. These things can never be learned in a museum or zoological park or by naming a million more species of organisms. We must ourselves live among the creatures of the jungle and watch them day after day, hoping for the clue as to the why — the everlasting why of form and color, action and life.”

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