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Ordering Life

Karl Jordan and the Naturalist Tradition

Kristin Johnson

Publication Year: 2012

For centuries naturalists have endeavored to name, order, and explain biological diversity. Karl Jordan (1861–1959) dedicated his long life to this effort, describing thousands of new species in the process. Ordering Life explores the career of this prominent figure as he worked to ensure a continued role for natural history museums and the field of taxonomy in the rapidly changing world of twentieth-century science. Jordan made an effort to both practice good taxonomy and secure status and patronage in a world that would soon be transformed by wars and economic and political upheaval. Kristin Johnson traces his response to these changes and shows that creating scientific knowledge about the natural world depends on much more than just good method or robust theory. The broader social context in which scientists work is just as important to the project of naming, describing, classifying, and, ultimately, explaining life.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Frontispiece

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pp. vii-x

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pp. 1-8

In the spring of 2000, a group of technology leaders gathered at a dinner party in San Francisco. Flush with money from the technology boom, former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold wished to discuss what sorts of projects needed funding. Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine joined in...

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1. Joining the Naturalist Tradition

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pp. 9-39

Karl Jordan became the curator of insects of the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum—eventually one of the largest private natural history collections in the world—in 1893. He entered this museum’s gilded doors as one of a lucky few who made a successful career out of a fascination with natural diversity. In...

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2. Reforming Entomology

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pp. 40-73

During what would become known as the heyday of the Tring Museum, the 1890s, specimens of butterflies, moths, and birds arrived at the museum from agents, collectors, friends, and colleagues. Jordan’s task as a naturalist and his job as a curator was to both build the collection and find some sense of order...

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3. Ordering Beetles, Butterflies, and Moths

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pp. 74-111

Jordan often told the story of how, sometime in the 1890s, a professor of zoology at Cambridge University tried to discourage his young friend Charles Rothschild from studying the systematics of insects. Charles had wanted to make a collection of fleas as part of his coursework and would not back down when the...

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4. Ordering Naturalists

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pp. 112-146

Jordan’s fellow systematists were astonished by the Sphingidae revision. “It quite takes my breath away,” wrote an entomologist, confessing that his head got “fairly ‘addled’ ” at the thought of how much work had been involved.1 Ernst Ehlers acknowledged his copy with the exclamation, “What an abundance of...

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5 A Descent into Disorder

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pp. 155-190

By the time the second International Congress of Entomology convened in Oxford in 1912, Jordan had lived and worked in England for two decades. He had carved out a respected role as an “eminent scientific entomologist”1 while helping to open up an insular community to a more international scene through...

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6. Taxonomy in a Changed World

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pp. 191-228

Jordan and his fellows worked hard to recover their research programs, institutions, and networks after World War I. In doing so, they joined other scientists casting about for support and legitimacy amid limited resources. One of the most prominent shifts that took place within British entomology in the postwar...

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7. The Ruin of War and the Synthesis of Biology

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pp. 229-264

The turbulent first decades of the twentieth century raised fundamental questions for entomologists. If the old scientific and social infrastructure of the taxonomic wing of the naturalist tradition was to be abandoned, could the tradition adapt? Could the tradition be reformed to fit new concepts of science...

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8. Naturalists in a New Landscape

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pp. 265-299

The events and trends of the decade and a half after the Ithaca congress of 1928 held ambiguous hints of what the future would be like for taxonomists and entomologists. Britain’s colonies served as a source of specimens, but taxonomists could not keep up with the influx of unnamed forms. The loss of private...

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pp. 300-312

More than four decades would pass between Jordan’s last scientific publication, “A Contribution to the Taxonomy of Stenoponia, a Genus of Palaearctic and Nearctic Fleas” (1958), and the call by the All Species Foundation (ASF) in 2000 to finally complete the catalog of life within twenty-five years. As a taxonomist...


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pp. 313-314


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pp. 315-356

Essay on Sources

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pp. 357-366


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pp. 367-146


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pp. 147-154

E-ISBN-13: 9781421406503
E-ISBN-10: 1421406500
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421406008
Print-ISBN-10: 1421406004

Page Count: 392
Illustrations: 11 halftones
Publication Year: 2012