Every Living Thing: The Great and Deadly Race to Know All Life, by Jason RobertsEvery Living Thing: The Great and Deadly Race to Know All Life by Jason Roberts

Every Living Thing: The Great and Deadly Race to Know All Life, by Jason RobertsEvery Living Thing: The Great and Deadly Race to Know All Life (2024), by Jason Roberts, is a fascinating and (for me at least) eye-opening book detailing the parallel exploration of the natural word by two 18th -century naturalists, one of whom is a (relatively) familiar household name and the other, at least in this household, is not. With these sorts of books, it probably comes as no surprise that it’s the latter who should be better know.

George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (Count Buffon) and Carl Linnaeus were both born in 1707. Both devoted their lives to the study of nature, both published their theories and discoveries widely, but their approaches could not have been more different. As Roberts writes, Linnaeus was a:

systematist, who prioritized naming and labeling above all other pursuits. Buffon [had] … a more complex approach to nature …. It may best be called complexism … To Linnaeus’s mind, nature was a noun. All species remained as created during Genesis, representing an unchanging tableau. To Buffon, nature was a verb, a swirl of constant change. To Linnaeus, classification was knowledge … Buffon believed that to classify was to oversimplify.

By the end of their lives (Linnaeus died a decade sooner and had withdrawn from public life due to illness even earlier), it seemed that Buffon’s viewpoint had won out. But shortly thereafter, with some help from the French Revolution, Buffon went from being honored to despised while Linnaeus became known as the father of biological classification and naming. Roberts is here to set the record straight, to reclaim the honor for Buffon he is due and place him in his rightful place in scientific history. Readers may be surprised at just how high a place that is. Roberts treatment of Linnaeus is far more harsh, not only pointing out the problematic nature of much of his science and classification but also calling him out for his racist viewpoints and their widespread impact.

Every Living Thing moves as a dual biography back and forth between the two men, tracing their lives from their early days through their parallel careers (which involved not a little direct sparring back and forth) and then to their deaths. One of the best aspects of Roberts book though is how he doesn’t end the story with those deaths but instead carries forward, showing us how their influence continued and flip-flopped and then how Buffon was proven to be clearly the more farsighted one, with no less than Charles Darwin, that towering giant of the field, paying him homage, noting upon being introduced to his work for the first time that “whole pages are laughably like mine … I am rather ashamed of the whole affair.”

I confess to being stunned myself at just how visionary Buffon was, considering how he worked in a time of the most rudimentary technology (the microscope had just been invented) and one lacking in scientific contexts and theories (well, correct ones at least). To give a partial sampling, these are some of the arguments Buffon made while constructing his massive 35-volume encyclopedia of nature:

  • That the Earth had been around for millennia
  • That the sun will die out in the future
  • That some species had gone extinct and new ones arisen
  • That humans were all one species and could be traced back to a common single species ancestor
  • That all species could be traced back to a common ancestor
  • That human reproduction had contributions from both sexes and that “there is in Nature a general prototype in each species on which each individual is modeled but which … alter itself or perfect itself according to circumstances”
  • That species changed by adapting to their environment and that “These changes are only made slowly and imperceptibly … Nature’s great workman is Time.”
  • That Earth went through seven “epochs”, beginning with the planets forming at roughly the same time in the same plane and moving through Earth solidifying, becoming an ocean planet with seas filled with life which then moved to land and eventually separation of the continents.

Beyond the directly correct nature of some of these beliefs — the idea of deep time for instance, or of extinction — it doesn’t take much to read into Buffon’s necessarily simplified and vague concepts the future seeds of evolution, natural selection, and even genetics. Buffon was also ahead of his time in other ways as well, decrying the race-based and racist theory of humanity, arguing for empathy for slaves, and believing in the education of women.

Linnaeus, despite his strong work ethic and a number of botanical discoveries, comes across far worse. He forbid his own daughters’ schooling, sent his “Apostles” as he called them out on collecting missions regardless of their preparation or the dangers of their destinations (a startlingly high number died while on their missions), and sorted humans into racial and deeply racist categories, describing the “gentle, acute, inventive” white Europeans for instance as being “governed by laws” while the “haughty, greedy” Asians were “governed by opinions” and the “sly, slow, careless” African were “governed by whim.” Roberts in fact goes so far as to state that “the modern conception of races — along with the spurious pseudoscience of assigning innate characteristics to them—has a genealogy that can be traced directly to the paes of [Linnaeus’s] Systema Naturae.”

if Linnaeus is far the less likable of the two figures, that doesn’t make the sections on him any less interesting, informative, or enjoyable. The more intimate details are also often engaging, and some of the digressions into the apostle missions are absolutely fascinating, particularly the story of a woman who disguised herself as a man to sail aboard one of the science missions. It is Buffon, though, who is not just interesting and fascinating, but also compelling.

As for the writing, Roberts is a particular strong non-fiction writer. He moves the reader effortlessly, clearly, and smoothly between people, times, and places. The writing is always clear and fluid and understandable, he has an engaging voice, and shows a regular ability to turn a nice phrase, as with the above description of the two men viewing nature as either “a noun” or “a verb.” Every Living Thing: The Great and Deadly Race to Know All Life is an immensely readable work, one that entertains as it informs and, one that, in the fashion of all the best non-fiction, leaves the reader eager to learn more about the subject (s). Highly recommended.

Published in April 2024. In the eighteenth century, two men—exact contemporaries and polar opposites—dedicated their lives to the same daunting task: identifying and describing all life on Earth. 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. Each began his task believing it 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? Both fell far short of their goal, but in the process they articulated starkly divergent views on nature, the future of the Earth, and humanity itself. Linnaeus gave the world such concepts as mammal, primate, and Homo sapiens, but he also denied that species change, and he promulgated racist pseudoscience. Buffon formulated early prototypes of evolution and genetics, warned of global climate change, and argued passionately against prejudice. The clash of their conflicting worldviews continued well after their deaths, as their successors contended for dominance in the emerging science that came to be called biology. In Every Living Thing, Jason Roberts weaves a sweeping, unforgettable narrative spell, exploring the intertwined lives and legacies of Linnaeus and Buffon—as well as the groundbreaking, often fatal adventures of their acolytes—to trace an arc of insight and discovery that extends across three centuries into the present day.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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