The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 112 of 188

Charles Darwin to C. Lyell.

Down [June, 1848].

My dear Lyell,

Out of justice to Chambers I must trouble you with one line to say, as far as I am personally concerned in Glen Roy, he has made the amende honorable, and pleads guilty through inadvertency of taking my two lines of arguments and facts without acknowledgment. He concluded by saying he “came to the same point by an independent course of inquiry, which in a small degree excuses this inadvertency.” His letter altogether shows a very good disposition, and says he is “much gratified with the measured approbation which you bestow, etc.” I am heartily glad I was able to say in truth that I thought he had done good service in calling more attention to the subject of the terraces. He protests it is unfair to call the sinking of the sea his theory, for that he with care always speaks of mere change of level, and this is quite true; but the one section in which he shows how he conceives the sea might sink is so astonishing, that I believe it will with others, as with me, more than counterbalance his previous caution. I hope that you may think better of the book than I do.

Yours most truly,
C. Darwin.

Charles Darwin to J.D. Hooker.

October 6th, 1848.

…I have lately been trying to get up an agitation (but I shall not succeed, and indeed doubt whether I have time and strength to go on with it), against the practice of Naturalists appending for perpetuity the name of the first describer to species. I look at this as a direct premium to hasty work, to naming instead of describing. A species ought to have a name so well known that the addition of the author’s name would be superfluous, and a [piece] of empty vanity. (His contempt for the self-regarding spirit in a naturalist is illustrated by an anecdote, for which I am indebted to Rev. L. Blomefield. After speaking of my father’s love of Entomology at Cambridge, Mr. Blomefield continues:–“He occasionally came over from Cambridge to my Vicarage at Swaffham Bulbeck, and we went out together to collect insects in the woods at Bottisham Hall, close at hand, or made longer excursions in the Fens. On one occasion he captured in a large bag net, with which he used vigorously to sweep the weeds and long grass, a rare coleopterous insect, one of the Lepturidae, which I myself had never taken in Cambridgeshire. He was pleased with his capture, and of course carried it home in triumph. Some years afterwards, the voyage of the ‘Beagle’ having been made in the interim, talking over old times with him, I reverted to this circumstance, and asked if he remembered it. ‘Oh, yes,’ (he said,) ‘I remember it well; and I was selfish enough to keep the specimen, when you were collecting materials for a Fauna of Cambridgeshire, and for a local museum in the Philosophical Society.’ He followed this up with some remarks on the pettiness of collectors, who aimed at nothing beyond filling their cabinets with rare things.”) At present, it would not do to give mere specific names; but I think Zoologists might open the road to the omission, by referring to good systematic writers instead of to first describers. Botany, I fancy, has not suffered so much as Zoology from mere naming; the characters, fortunately, are more obscure. Have you ever thought on this point? Why should Naturalists append their own names to new species, when Mineralogists and Chemists do not do so to new substances? When you write to Falconer pray remember me affectionately to him. I grieve most sincerely to hear that he has been ill, my dear Hooker, God bless you, and fare you well.

Your sincere friend,
C. Darwin.

Charles Darwin to Hugh Strickland.

Down, January 29th [1849].
(Hugh Edwin Strickland, M.A., F.R.S., was born 2nd of March, 1811, and educated at Rugby, under Arnold, and at Oriel College, Oxford. In 1835 and 1836 he travelled through Europe to the Levant with W.J. Hamilton, the geologist, wintering in Asia Minor. In 1841 he brought the subject of Natural History Nomenclature before the British Association, and prepared the Code of Rules for Zoological Nomenclature, now known by his name–the principles of which are very generally adopted. In 1843 he was one of the founders (if not the original projector) of the Ray Society. In 1845 he married the second daughter of Sir William Jardine, Bart. In 1850 he was appointed, in consequence of Buckland’s illness, Deputy Reader in Geology at Oxford. His promising career was suddenly cut short on September 14, 1853, when, while geologizing in a railway cutting between Retford and Gainsborough, he was run over by a train and instantly killed. A memoir of him and a reprint of his principal contributions to journals was published by Sir William Jardine in 1858; but he was also the author of ‘The Dodo and its Kindred’ (1848); ‘Bibliographia Zoologiae’ (the latter in conjunction with Louis Agassiz, and issued by the Ray Society); ‘Ornithological Synonyms’ (one volume only published, and that posthumously). A catalogue of his ornithological collection, given by his widow to the University of Cambridge, was compiled by Mr. Salvin, and published in 1882. (I am indebted to Prof. Newton for the above note.))

…What a labour you have undertaken; I do honour your devoted zeal in the good cause of Natural Science. Do you happen to have a spare copy of the Nomenclature rules published in the ‘British Association Transactions?’ if you have, and would give it to me, I should be truly obliged, for I grudge buying the volume for it. I have found the rules very useful, it is quite a comfort to have something to rest on in the turbulent ocean of nomenclature (and am accordingly grateful to you), though I find it very difficult to obey always. Here is a case (and I think it should have been noticed in the rules), Coronula, Cineras and Otion, are names adopted by Cuvier, Lamarck, Owen, and almost every well-known writer, but I find that all three names were anticipated by a German: now I believe if I were to follow the strict rule of priority, more harm would be done than good, and more especially as I feel sure that the newly fished-up names would not be adopted. I have almost made up my mind to reject the rule of priority in this case; would you grudge the trouble to send me your opinion? I have been led of late to reflect much on the subject of naming, and I have come to a fixed opinion that the plan of the first describer’s name, being appended for perpetuity to a species, had been the greatest curse to Natural History. Some months since, I wrote out the enclosed badly drawn-up paper, thinking that perhaps I would agitate the subject; but the fit has passed, and I do not suppose I ever shall; I send it you for the chance of your caring to see my notions. I have been surprised to find in conversation that several naturalists were of nearly my way of thinking. I feel sure as long as species-mongers have their vanity tickled by seeing their own names appended to a species, because they miserably described it in two or three lines, we shall have the same vast amount of bad work as at present, and which is enough to dishearten any man who is willing to work out any branch with care and time. I find every genus of Cirripedia has half-a-dozen names, and not one careful description of any one species in any one genus. I do not believe that this would have been the case if each man knew that the memory of his own name depended on his doing his work well, and not upon merely appending a name with a few wretched lines indicating only a few prominent external characters. But I will not weary you with any longer tirade. Read my paper or not, just as you like, and return it whenever you please.

Yours most sincerely,
C. Darwin.

Hugh Strickland to Charles Darwin.

The Lodge, Tewkesbury, January 31st, 1849.

…I have next to notice your second objection–that retaining the name of the first describer in perpetuum along with that of the species, is a premium on hasty and careless work. This is quite a different question from that of the law of priority itself, and it never occurred to me before, though it seems highly probable that the general recognition of that law may produce such a result. We must try to counteract this evil in some other way.

The object of appending the name of a man to the name of a species is not to gratify the vanity of the man, but to indicate more precisely the species. Sometimes two men will, by accident, give the same name (independently) to two species of the same genus. More frequently a later author will misapply the specific name of an older one. Thus the Helix putris of Montagu is not H. putris of Linnaeus, though Montague supposed it to be so. In such a case we cannot define the species by Helix putris alone, but must append the name of the author whom we quote. But when a species has never borne but one name (as Corvus frugilegus), and no other species of Corvus has borne the same name, it is, of course, unnecessary to add the author’s name. Yet even here I like the form Corvus frugilegus, Linn., as it reminds us that this is one of the old species, long known, and to be found in the ‘Systema Naturae,’ etc. I fear, therefore, that (at least until our nomenclature is more definitely settled) it will be impossible to indicate species with scientific accuracy, without adding the name of their first author. You may, indeed, do it as you propose, by saying in Lam. An. Invert., etc., but then this would be incompatible with the law of priority, for where Lamarck has violated that low, one cannot adopt his name. It is, nevertheless, highly conducive to accurate indication to append to the (oldest) specific name one good reference to a standard work, especially to a figure, with an accompanying synonym if necessary. This method may be cumbrous, but cumbrousness is a far less evil than uncertainty.

It, moreover, seems hardly possible to carry out the priority principle, without the historical aid afforded by appending the author’s name to the specific one. If I, a priority man, called a species C.D., it implies that C.D. is the oldest name that I know of; but in order that you and others may judge of the propriety of that name, you must ascertain when, and by whom, the name was first coined. Now, if to the specific name C.D., I append the name A.B., of its first describer, I at once furnish you with the clue to the dates when, and the book in which, this description was given, and I thus assist you in determining whether C.D. be really the oldest, and therefore the correct, designation.

I do, however, admit that the priority principle (excellent as it is) has a tendency, when the author’s name is added, to encourage vanity and slovenly work. I think, however, that much might be done to discourage those obscure and unsatisfactory definitions of which you so justly complain, by writing down the practice. Let the better disposed naturalists combine to make a formal protest against all vague, loose, and inadequate definitions of (supposed) new species. Let a committee (say of the British Association) be appointed to prepare a sort of class list of the various modern works in which new species are described, arranged in order of merit. The lowest class would contain the worst examples of the kind, and their authors would thus be exposed to the obloquy which they deserve, and be gibbeted in terrorem for the edification of those who may come after.

I have thus candidly stated my views (I hope intelligibly) of what seems best to be done in the present transitional and dangerous state of systematic zoology. Innumerable labourers, many of them crotchety and half-educated, are rushing into the field, and it depends, I think, on the present generation whether the science is to descend to posterity a chaotic mass, or possessed of some traces of law and organisation. If we could only get a congress of deputies from the chief scientific bodies of Europe and America, something might be done, but, as the case stands, I confess I do not clearly see my way, beyond humbly endeavouring to reform number one.

Yours ever,
H.E. Strickland.

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