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.

Buffon also had a strong empirical streak. Among the many zoological puzzles confronting the Enlightenment was the migration of swallows in winter. The Greeks said that they slept in the bottom of swamps, an idea still entertained in 1779. ‘I have therefore done research,’ Buffon wrote in an article on Les hirondelles, ‘to find out which species are subject to numbing [hibernation], and to discover if the swallow is one of them; I had a few of them closed up in an icebox, where I kept them for a certain time. They did not become torpid; the majority died there and not one started to move again in the sun’s rays.’ Similar experiments could be made for the purposes of classification. Was the ferret the same creature as the ictis of the Greeks? Aristotle said the ictis dined on honey, so Buffon asked Le Roy, the inspector of the hunt at Versailles, to experiment on the King’s ferrets; no, they did not like honey, and an ermine that Buffon fed a honey diet soon went the way of the swallows.

It was the armadillo that epitomised Buffon’s difficulty with classification. Armadillos are puzzling creatures, for although clearly mammals, they possess a hard ‘shell’ and little hair. The male armadillo also, as Buffon coyly puts it, ‘shows external signs of great progenitive powers’, that is, it has a penis two-thirds the length of its body. After observing, with some inaccuracy, that the armadillo’s shell was like that of a turtle or a crawfish, Buffon asserted that

a good description, without definitions ... a particular attention to exceptions and almost imperceptible gradations are ... the only means of estimating nature. If the time lost in forming definitions had been employed in making good descriptions, we would not at this day have found Natural History in its infancy; we should have had less trouble to take her baubles, to disentangle her from her swaddling clothes, and perhaps have anticipated her slow discoveries, for we should have written more for science and less for error.

Linnaeus never deigned to reply to this kind of criticism, though he did give the name Buffonia to a plant possessed of an especially unpleasant smell. What did Buffon care? The Histoire naturelle was a huge success, and he died in 1788, rich and celebrated and adored by women, including the beautiful bluestocking, Mme Necker, wife of the French Minister of Finance. Though his was a long and astonishingly productive life, we are the poorer for his failure to survive another decade and set eyes on a creature that would have delighted his connectionist soul by uniting the most improbable features of birds and mammals, to the great confusion of classifiers and their taxonomies. What an elegantly sardonic essay he would have written on the platypus.

The platypus was first described in 1799 by George Shaw, keeper of mammals at the British Museum of Natural History, as being ‘most extraordinary in its conformation; exhibiting the perfect resemblance of the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped’. Shaw had only one specimen which, until more arrived from Australia, he thought might be a fake, rather like specious mermaids constructed from the body of a hake and the head of a monkey. Shaw cautiously claimed the platypus as a mammal even though it was apparently devoid of mammae and had distinctly peculiar sexual organs; at least one zoologist thought it should be placed in the Amphibia. Harriet Ritvo describes the impact that the platypus, and the slightly less weird, but still peculiar, kangaroo, had on British zoology following the return of the Endeavour, the ship that carried James Cook and Joseph Banks to Australia. These animals became, in the course of the 19th century, the focus of disputes about mammalian classification. Darwin thought they might well be viewed as links between mammals, birds and reptiles. His bête noire, Richard Owen, held fast to Platonisin, however, and denied that they were intermediate to anything – he placed the platypus with the edentates (armadillos, again). Owen even denied that Ornithorychus laid eggs, though British settlers and Aborigines said they did and the female’s reproductive tract was clearly evocative of a bird’s or a lizard’s. It was only in 1884 that a telegram was sent to the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Montreal which read ‘Monotremes oviparous, ovum meroblastic.’ In its own fussy, zoological way, it was no less satisfying than the letter sent by Eddington to Einstein confirming the general theory of relativity.

The battle over the platypus was only a skirmish among professional zoologists who, although they might differ among themselves as to the merits of particular classifications, did not doubt that to classify was necessary and delightful. By the end of the 18th century, the spirit of Linnaeus, if not his actual classification, had triumphed in Britain; in France, on the other hand, it was said that Button’s influence had been pernicious in limiting Linnaeus’s impact. Roger calls this the beginning of the ‘black legend’ – which has had great force, at least in the English-speaking world – that Buffon was all style and no substance: every biology undergraduate knows the name of Linnaeus, few know of Buffon. If Roger aims to demolish the legend of Buffon’s ineptitude, Harriet Ritvo aims to challenge the legend of Linnaean triumphalism. Even half a century after the publication of the magisterial tenth edition of Systema Naturae, she argues, there remained in Britain a realm of provincial natural histories, popular works of zoology and dictionaries of natural history which did not embrace the Latinate artifice of scientific classification.

Perhaps that is hardly surprising. There is poetry and humour to be found in Linnaean binomials (what could be more delightfully evocative than Distortio anus, Ovula ovum, and Penicillus penis, the names given by Linnaeus to two snails and a clam?), but it is an introverted and academic humour, not calculated to appeal to a wider audience. ‘Goldsmith is writing a Natural History,’ Samuel Johnson said to Boswell, ‘and you can be sure that he will make it as entertaining as a Persian Tale.’ So he did, turning naturally to Buffon for his material and method. Like the Histoire naturelle, Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774) eschews Latin names and rigid taxonomies and instead simply rambles comfortably through the animal kingdom, with plenty of space devoted to interesting topics such as dwarves, mummification and the races of man. Goldsmith did not entirely dispense with system, but then neither did Buffon who, for all his distaste for classification, incorporated more and more Linnaean groups into his work as the Histoire naturelle progressed: after all, essays on some two hundred quadruped species had to be ordered into a book.

Ritvo makes much of writers like Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Bewick and William Frederick Martyn to advance her claim that there was resistance to the ‘hegemonic juggernaut’ of Linnaean classification. But in telling this tale of brave outsider plurality v. the chilly autocracy of establishment systematists, and in being so eager to see off Whiggish historians who view the 18th century as the great age of biological classification, Ritvo seems to have missed the significance of such writers. Oliver Goldsmith had no truck with Buffon’s peevish criticisms of the Linnaeans; he recognised that books devoted to elaborate and artificial classifications were necessary, for they were rather like dictionaries (except in reverse, in that they progress from the description of an object to its name). This was, after all, the era of the greatest dictionary of all. But Goldsmith also said that such books sacrificed ‘to order alone, all the delights of the subject, all the arts of heightening, awakening, or continuing curiosity’. He could be credulous in his zoology (as when he claimed that Lapland squirrels migrate across lakes on bark boats using their tails as sails), but his essay on classification is marvellous, for it shows natural history on the point of dividing into two very distinct sciences: one concerned with the names and order of animals, the other with their habits, forms and functions. The irascible Buffon never appreciated that these activities were complementary, but that they are is taken for granted today: every zoology department still has scientists busy with Buffonian experiments, such as freezing marmots and warming fruit-flies to see if and when they expire.

Modern zoologists owe an even greater debt to Buffon, for it was he who first gave what is, in essence, the modern definition of a species. In 1747, he wrote: ‘One ought to consider as the same species those that perpetuate and conserve the similarity of the species by means of copulation, and as different those that through the same means can produce nothing together.’ It was an experimentalist’s reply to Locke’s claim that species were mere abstractions created by human minds, and it gave an explanation for why a spaniel and a hound, though apparently so different, are one species, but an ass and a horse, though so similar, are two. As Ritvo points out, British naturalists frequently spoke of reproduction as a possible way of distinguishing one species from another. In practice, most taxonomists remained under the sway of Linnaean essentialism and were content to give a new name to any creature in their cabinets that merely looked different from any other. Interspecies sex of all kinds aroused great interest. In the late 1800s the information was anecdotal and rather charming: a male mongoose is reported to ‘satisfy his desires’ with female cats; a female zebra admits the embraces of a jackass if her suitor is painted with stripes. Later, with the rise of menageries, lions crossed with tigers, or different species of bear, although more common, continued to arouse much interest (even today ‘Liggers’ or ‘Tiglions’ are draws at zoos).

Ritvo’s method is to lower a trawl into the abyss of late Georgian and Victorian culture and drop the contents, more or less unsorted, on the deck. Mermaids, sea-monsters, dwarves, hermaphrodites, whales, white cows, women who look like turtles and hens with humanoid features crowd the chapters to give a fascinating view of the bizarre bestiary that was 18th and 19th-century Britain. The testimony of sea captains is juxtaposed with the deliberations of professors of anatomy; farmers, sportsmen, carnival hucksters, zoo attendants and surgeons all have their say about the ordering of the biological world. The views of Enlightenment savants can appear in the same paragraph as Late Victorian scientists, with nary a hint (beyond the footnotes) that they are separated by a hundred years. All of this is intended to evoke the ‘polyphony of voices’ which had something to say about biological classification. The problem is that in the ensuing cacophony we can hardly distinguish one voice from another, much less understand why each said what it did. Yet all this activity had meaning; something, after all, was discovered about the order of the natural world between the years 1770 and 1900 by experts and public alike, though so systematically confused is Ritvo’s account that a naive reader might well doubt it. Why is this? Perhaps the problem is that Ritvo does not believe that classifications of the natural world are about anything real, that one classification might have virtues lacking in another, that the ichthyologist knows something the fishmonger does not. I think they are, that it might and that he does.