The Name of the Beast

Armand Marie Leroi

  • Buffon by Jacques Roger
    Cornell, 492 pp, £39.50, August 1997, ISBN 0 8014 2918 8
  • The Platypus and the Mermaid and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination by Harriet Ritvo
    Harvard, 274 pp, £19.95, November 1997, ISBN 0 674 67357 3

During the second half of the 18th century, the great enterprise of sorting out the biological world was at its most dynamic and magnificent. Empire-builders were sending home animals, indeed entire faunas, of a strangeness that defied traditional taxonomies. Scientifically-minded farmers were calculating pedigrees and codifying breeds in the quest for improved stock; physicians and surgeons were giving names to the apparently infinite congenital abnormalities that came under their not always very skilful care. For men with a taste for the kind of intellectual order that natural history can provide, these were times in which it must have been heaven to be alive.

Histories of animal classification begin with Aristotle but quickly skip to Linnaeus. His Systema Naturae, published in 1735, classified plants on the basis of their sexual parts. Linnaeus’s ambitions later expanded to encompass both plants and animals – by convention, modern zoological nomenclature begins with the names given in the tenth edition of Systema Naturae (1758). This attempt to embrace all living nature within a single system was an enormous task, more enormous by far than he conceived. Erroneously believing the tropics to be biologically rather uniform, Linnaeus thought that there were about six thousand animal species; the true number is more like ten million. He was responsible for two important innovations, however. First, he brought order to the nomenclature of animals: it is to him that we owe the binomial system of genera and species. Second, he attempted to order the organisms that he saw into successively more inclusive groups, each of which was defined by the possession of a particular trait: in the tenth edition of Systema Naturae he created the Mammalia, essentially the taxon that we know today, containing all the creatures from shrews to whales that suckle their young. It was, as Linnaeus himself admitted, an artificial method of classification because the critical characters were chosen for the convenience of the classifier. Yet he believed that the characters somehow defined the essence of the plants and animals laid before him; he was, after all, in search of the true order of Creation.

Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, was a man who connected what Linnaeus sought to sunder: he saw animals as a totality. Between 1744 and his death in 1788, Buffon wrote his magnificent 44-volume Histoire naturelle générale et particulière. ‘Genius,’ he said, ‘is only a greater gift of patience.’ An exact contemporary of Linnaeus, he had a mind of an altogether different construction from that of the Great Classifier, whose system he scorned and whose followers he anathematised. His reasons for doing so were complex, subtle and consistent, and his reputation has accordingly never stood high in the English-speaking world. Fortunately, we now have a wonderful guide to his thought, in English, by the late Jacques Roger.

Buffon’s compendium is a true natural history: a compilation of facts about the form, habits and behaviours of his subjects. He believed that the creatures Linnaeus separated out as ‘Mammalia’ and ‘Aves’ could be ‘connected’ in a multitude of ways: hedgehogs and porcupines bore live young, yet their spines suggested avian feathers. Bats seemed like mice, yet they flew like birds; conversely, ostriches laid eggs, but did not fly. There was a maritime link: seals – whales – fish – penguins – birds; if you look for them, connections are everywhere. It made for a chaotic state of affairs: ‘Nature has produced a world of related and unrelated creatures ... an infinity of harmonious and contrary combinations.’ ‘Expect anything ... ambiguous species, irregular productions, anomalous beings.’ He was writing about the pig.

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