Book Review: Citizen Scientist

Mary Ellen Hannibal’s Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction is a book that encompasses a depth of ponderings and a wealth of rich detail. It is one great emotional journey composed of myriad smaller ones, crossing history and the world. It is a work of literature as well as a science book, a memoir and a set of profiles. In short, it is an ambitious work and left me deeply satisfied.22580997

Hannibal’s broad goal with this volume is right there in the subtitle: she is on a hunt for the heroes of citizen science: those citizen scientists whose lives fulfill some aspect of the Hero’s Journey as defined by Joseph Campbell, and for hope for the future in a time when the natural world is in a state of diminishment. She notes in the Introduction, specifically in a project where Native American wisdom is being utilized to reintroduce fire to landscapes where it is needed:

“Science is sometimes blamed for separating humans from nature, but here science was helping to heal the rift. Can it be healed? Are we nearing the utter end of the world, or is there a way forward?”

Hannibal uses as an anchor her own personal interactions with citizen science. Over the course of writing, she gets involved with a number of projects (from a seashore life inventory to a migratory hawk count program) and writes about the vibrant personalities she encounters as well as the notes of history that run deep beneath the different kinds of work she does. While visiting her own experiences, she touches back frequently on the central relationship of the book: that between her and her now-deceased father. That relationship, specifically the end of it, reflects the larger story: of our relationship to a suffering natural world.

Her fascination with heroes, specifically, comes from a personal source: she attended a lecture by a then elderly Joseph Campbell, the famed mythologizer and author of Hero with a Thousand Faces. His life was intricately linked to those of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, authors of one of the founding works of citizen science: The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Campbell was influenced enough by his time with them to state that “myth is a function of biology.” Fascinated by this implication, Hannibal has linked myth, heroes, and biology all together in this work.

“What I’m trying to do in this book is what they were trying to do—put it all together, the personal, the historical, the scientific,” she writes, referencing Steinbeck and Ricketts.

Much of the book consists of interweaving narratives: with Hannibal’s experiences as the jumping point for forays into the lives of so-called “heroes” both modern and historic. In some cases, she probably doesn’t spend enough time defining why her featured subjects fit Campbell’s “hero” mold, and occasionally goes on tangents concerning other people who are related to the topic but not “heroes” themselves. This made the book a bit information-heavy at times, but the general goal is still fulfilled.

Perhaps one of the more satisfying aspects of the book was its clear story arc. I haven’t often encountered a full arc (rise to a climax and then a resolution) in science books, so this was a delightful find for me as a reader (perhaps my standards aren’t high enough?).

As this book deals with extinction, threads of despair are woven throughout, but they are perhaps strongest in Chapter 8, which deals a great deal with the threatening effects of climate change. The chapter specifically mentions the loss of Bay checkerspot butterflies (a historically important species, as they were the model species for the first defining studies of coevolution) from Jasper Ridge and the total invasion of buffelgrass into the Sonoran Desert and French brome onto Mount Tam. Chapter 9, however, seems like the climactic moment. It is primarily the story of Campbell, Steinbeck, and Ricketts and the development of the seminal works used in Citizen Scientist. There is even a final note of great despair: the mentioning of the Dark Mountain Project (which was influenced by some of the same philosophers these men were), who profess that they have “stopped believing the stories our civilization tells itself. We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse,” and that “writing and art have a crucial role to play in coming to terms with this reality.” Dark, indeed. Hannibal doesn’t linger here, though. She moves back into the tale of the three central figures and their influence on citizen science.

My one major qualm with this section is that she doesn’t spend much time talking about Carol Steinbeck, John’s wife and apparently just as central to the story as the three men.

All of the references to them really made that chapter the climactic section of the book, but momentum doesn’t falter after Chapter 9. Chapter 10 details the work of Same Droege, inventor of the “bioblitz” citizen science survey. Droege’s drive and energy inspire a new injection of hope; there is no time to think about extinction or endings, only a constant forward momentum here. It’s a good resolution to the emotions of the book, which until then had been rather ambiguous about whether we should be hopeful or despairing of our natural world’s future.

Citizen Scientist is successful in its broad goals. Although Hannibal can be detail-heavy at times, her occasionally extraneous tangents didn’t detract too much from the flow of the work. The emotional arc was satisfying enough that I can forgive it for being a slow read.

There were a few other personal things I’ll mention:

My favorite “hero” of the book is Alice Eastwood. Her life story is simply fascinating and she sounds almost fantastical as a character, but she was quite real.

There are many citizen science projects mentioned in the book. Although many are local, many others are not. Therefore, anyone reading this book looking for advice can easily use it to get ideas for how to participate in citizen science. However, it is by no means a how-to manual. If you’re looking for a book purely about citizen science efforts, this will be more than you asked for. Citizen Scientist is more of a work of literary nonfiction for those of a scientific bent, with the added bonus of being helpful to anyone who wants to get more involved in scientific efforts.

I personally also loved the positive emphasis placed on citizen science. There were so many examples of the major contributions citizen science has made to the advancement of science in general. Charles Darwin, in fact, can be loosely categorized as a citizen scientist (and the voyage of the Beagle, is, in fact, written about here).

I’ll allow Hannibal the last word, here, as it is a fitting call to action:

“Citizen science is taking off as never before, and it is needed as never before.”


To the reader: As with my other book reviews, please let me know if you’ve read this book or similar ones and would like to discuss or compare. Do you feel that citizen science has an important place in the future of science? What about its history, after reading this book?


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