The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 113 of 188

Charles Darwin to Hugh Strickland.

Down, Sunday [February 4th, 1849].

My dear Strickland,

I am, in truth, greatly obliged to you for your long, most interesting, and clear letter, and the Report. I will consider your arguments, which are of the greatest weight, but I confess I cannot yet bring myself to reject very well-known names, not in one country, but over the world, for obscure ones,–simply on the ground that I do not believe I should be followed. Pray believe that I should break the law of priority only in rare cases; will you read the enclosed (and return it), and tell me whether it does not stagger you? (N.B. I promise that I will not give you any more trouble.) I want simple answers, and not for you to waste your time in reasons; I am curious for your answer in regard to Balanus. I put the case of Otion, etc., to W. Thompson, who is fierce for the law of priority, and he gave it up in such well-known names. I am in a perfect maze of doubt on nomenclature. In not one large genus of Cirripedia has any one species been correctly defined; it is pure guesswork (being guided by range and commonness and habits) to recognise any species: thus I can make out, from plates or descriptions, hardly any of the British sessile cirripedes. I cannot bear to give new names to all the species, and yet I shall perhaps do wrong to attach old names by little better than guess; I cannot at present tell the least which of two species all writers have meant by the common Anatifera laevis; I have, therefore, given that name to the one which is rather the commonest. Literally, not one species is properly defined; not one naturalist has ever taken the trouble to open the shell of any species to describe it scientifically, and yet all the genera have half-a-dozen synonyms. For argument’s sake, suppose I do my work thoroughly well, any one who happens to have the original specimens named, I will say by Chenu, who has figured and named hundreds of species, will be able to upset all my names according to the law of priority (for he may maintain his descriptions are sufficient), do you think it advantageous to science that this should be done: I think not, and that convenience and high merit (here put as mere argument) had better come into some play. The subject is heart-breaking.

I hope you will occasionally turn in your mind my argument of the evil done by the “mihi” attached to specific names; I can most clearly see the excessive evil it has caused; in mineralogy I have myself found there is no rage to merely name; a person does not take up the subject without he intends to work it out, as he knows that his only claim to merit rests on his work being ably done, and has no relation whatever to naming. I give up one point, and grant that reference to first describer’s name should be given in all systematic works, but I think something would be gained if a reference was given without the author’s name being actually appended as part of the binomial name, and I think, except in systematic works, a reference, such as I propose, would damp vanity much. I think a very wrong spirit runs through all Natural History, as if some merit was due to a man for merely naming and defining a species; I think scarcely any, or none, is due; if he works out minutely and anatomically any one species, or systematically a whole group, credit is due, but I must think the mere defining a species is nothing, and that no injustice is done him if it be overlooked, though a great inconvenience to Natural History is thus caused. I do not think more credit is due to a man for defining a species, than to a carpenter for making a box. But I am foolish and rabid against species-mongers, or rather against their vanity; it is useful and necessary work which must be done; but they act as if they had actually made the species, and it was their own property.

I use Agassiz’s nomenclator; at least two-thirds of the dates in the Cirripedia are grossly wrong.

I shall do what I can in fossil Cirripedia, and should be very grateful for specimens; but I do not believe that species (and hardly genera) can be defined by single valves; as in every recent species yet examined their forms vary greatly: to describe a species by valves alone, is the same as to describe a crab from small portions of its carapace alone, these portions being highly variable, and not, as in Crustacea, modelled over viscera. I sincerely apologise for the trouble which I have given you, but indeed I will give no more.

Yours most sincerely,
C. Darwin.

P.S.–In conversation I found Owen and Andrew Smith much inclined to throw over the practice of attaching authors’ names; I believe if I agitated I could get a large party to join. W. Thompson agreed some way with me, but was not prepared to go nearly as far as I am.

Charles Darwin to Hugh Strickland.

Down, February 10th [1849].

My dear Strickland,

I have again to thank you cordially for your letter. Your remarks shall fructify to some extent, and I will try to be more faithful to rigid virtue and priority; but as for calling Balanus “Lepas” (which I did not think of), I cannot do it, my pen won’t write it–it is impossible. I have great hopes some of my difficulties will disappear, owing to wrong dates in Agassiz, and to my having to run several genera into one, for I have as yet gone, in but few cases, to original sources. With respect to adopting my own notions in my Cirripedia book, I should not like to do so without I found others approved, and in some public way,–nor, indeed, is it well adapted, as I can never recognise a species without I have the original specimen, which, fortunately, I have in many cases in the British Museum. Thus far I mean to adopt my notion, as never putting mihi or “Darwin” after my own species, and in the anatomical text giving no authors’ names at all, as the systematic Part will serve for those who want to know the History of a species as far as I can imperfectly work it out…

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