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Points of Order

The Platypus and the Mermaid and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination

by Harriet Ritvo
Harvard University Press, 288 pp., $29.95

Measurement began our might,” said Yeats; and naming the animals was Adam’s first task in the Garden of Eden. To name, sort, label, classify, and categorize—these are among man’s earliest instincts; but as Harriet Ritvo observes in The Platypus and the Mermaid, naming and categorizing are so closely related that to distinguish between them can be difficult. Yet the distinction is important. “What’s in a name?” asked Juliet; “that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.” But the infatuated girl was confused. When she demanded, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” she meant, “Wherefore art thou Montague?” and indeed she soon recognizes her mistake:

What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man.

But this was to fall into another error. Romeo was indeed a name only, but Montague was a classification also, assigning him to his family as exactly as the Linnean names assign an animal to its genus and species. It did expose a fact about him which no change of title could undo; for that matter, his Montague heredity had gone into the shaping of that hand and foot and face which Juliet so much admired. If he had not been Montague, he would not have been the man she loved.

But are some classifications arbitrary and subjective? And if so, do these subjectivities come to influence the way people think? It seems to be implicit through much of Harriet Ritvo’s book, and is at times explicit, that the answer to these questions is often yes. Her principal theme, in a book which draws her down a number of curious by-ways, is the classification of plant and animal specimens in nineteenth-century Britain. As it happens, the very name of her book has a certain instability about it. The full title is The Platypus and the Mermaid and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination: that is rather cumbrous, but it does try dutifully to give us an inkling of what the book’s contents may be. However, the half-title page and the typography of the dust jacket encourage us to reduce the title to its first five words. That gives a somewhat different flavor, suggesting a book that will be quirky, enigmatic, perhaps poetical (compare The Phoenix and the Turtle, another title which conjoins a real and a fabulous creature); and Ritvo seems to confirm the impression that she means to offer a bulging, motley ragbag, profuse in curious facts and information, by taking as her epigraph a sentence drawn from Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus: “Considered as an Author, Herr Teufelsdröckh has one scarcely pardonable fault, doubtless his worst: an almost total want of arrangement.”

This quotation might also be read as preemptively defensive, though in fact the book’s organization is tolerably clear. Across five chapters she follows a line leading from academic science toward popular attitudes. She begins with arguments among biologists about the taxonomy of fauna, discusses attitudes to hybridity and stock-breeding, moves on to monsters, freaks, and deformities, mostly among human beings, and concludes with a chapter on the taxonomies dividing those animals that might properly be eaten from those that might not. Her learning is wide and unusual, her book a bran tub stuffed with obscure authors and diverse beliefs, where science mingles with prejudice, and sense with silliness. She also provides a good range of intriguing illustrations, and in the case of the chapter on freaks a number of pretty disagreeable ones. The book aspires to sprightliness, though that ambition is hobbled by a laborious prose style (in compensation, however, there are some merry word plays in the titles of chapters and sections—“The Point of Order,” “Flesh Made Word,” “Barring the Cross” (on hybrids), “The Mongrel Horde”).

Although the book’s organization is clear enough, it is less evident that it has an overall theme. The ostensible theme of classification or taxonomy might be seen as a peg on which to hang a collection of otherwise more or less unconnected things—debates over the existence of mermaids and unicorns, the dispute about whether wild cattle were indigenous, dietary taboos, Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, bearded ladies at the fairground. Maybe that is Ritvo’s intention. But on the whole it seems that she does want to advance a general argument: that debates about taxonomy were symptoms of competing forces in society as a whole, and perhaps that the way in which things were classified affected social and cultural attitudes.

That claim seems attractive and plausible enough, but surprisingly many of her examples go less far toward confirming it than one might expect. In a part of her inquiry which covers the eighteenth as well as the nineteenth century, she describes the problems confronting naturalists in categorizing fauna and the disputes among them, but in many cases these difficulties and disagreements do not seem to be of great consequence. Before the late eighteenth century the class of mammal was commonly called quadruped. Zoologists were not much troubled, Ritvo tells us, at excluding lizards and salamanders from the class of quadrupeds, but “the power of nomenclature was sufficient that they did ordinarily feel compelled to explain why bats and marine mammals were…included.” But surely there is less here than meets the eye. Obviously you needed to explain why creatures with two legs or none should be described as having four. But the zoologists had a perfectly clear idea of what they were talking about; it was just that the term quadruped was hopelessly inappropriate. All that was required was to find a new term, which is what the zoologists did, namely “mammal.”

More seriously puzzling were those newly found creatures which appeared to combine the characteristics of quite different classes. The platypus is particularly interesting to Ritvo because the discovery of a furry animal with the bill of a duck which laid eggs and suckled its young threw the zoologists into confusion. Thomas Bewick, in his widely read A General History of Quadrupeds, called it “an animal sui generis; it appears to possess a three fold nature, that of a fish, a bird and a quadruped, and is related to nothing that we have hitherto seen.” An expert at the British Museum, publishing the first scientific description of the creature in 1799, reckoned it to be “of all the Mammalia yet known…the most extraordinary in its conformation; exhibiting the perfect resemblance of the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped.” Yet another scientist denied that it could be classed as a mammal at all, adding that “very few will be hardy enough…to think of arranging it with Birds or Fishes. The only possible class that remains, is the Amphibia.”

Ironically, the puzzle of the platypus was greater, from one point of view, for the Darwinist than for the naturalists of earlier generations. Though the creature was undoubtedly an oddity, in scientific terms it does not seem to present any problem that a good dose of creationism would not solve. If the players in Hamlet could mix the genres, offering pastoral-comical, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, so a divine creator, making the world in six days, might mix the genera, and amuse himself by adding to the world’s diversity an amphibian-bird-mammal. Evolutionism, on the other hand, substituting for the ancient image of the Great Chain of Being the image of a tree with countless branches, requires that every species shall have evolved out of another; and since miscegenation is ruled out, we cannot take the platypus’s coat from the wombat and its bill from the duck. We have a genuine difficulty to explain.

The pre-Darwinian scientist had no such explaining to do. That raises for us a question of historical understanding: What did these wrangling naturalists themselves think they were doing? Two terms which emerge from the authorities whom Ritvo cites are “relation” and “arrangement.” The investigation of relationships between species is obviously of scientific importance, but in the absence of a theory of origin of species one wonders what naturalists supposed “relationship” to mean. This is surely a question of great interest, though it is not one that Ritvo pursues. She illustrates the different ways in which species were arranged: by types of dentition, diet, foot, genital organs, and so on. But ruminating on which of these arrangements is superior seems not much more significant than the secretary wondering whether to file Mr. Smith’s letter to the boss under S for Smith or R for raise. The “point of order,” to borrow Ritvo’s punning phrase, becomes essentially a matter of tidiness. She remarks herself that “classification lost its flagship status during the first decades of the nineteenth century, when it was replaced on the cutting edge of zoology by physiology and allied pursuits.” One is tempted to say that zoologists had found more interesting things to do.

Some problems of classification and nomenclature, though, were more pressing. The Linnean system divided flora and fauna into genera, and genera into species, each identified by a Latin name: within species there might in turn be a number of varieties. For pre-Darwinian naturalists, for whom species were separate and immutable creations, it was indeed a significant question whether two closely allied animals formed two different species or were varieties of one. Nomenclature in such cases was more than administrative convenience: it purported to assert a permanent truth. As Ritvo shows, Darwin dissolved this problem, because his theory held that no clear line of demarcation can be drawn between species and variety, since, in his own words, “Species are only strongly marked and permanent varieties, and…each species first existed as a variety.”

Some of his followers went further. G.H. Lewes declared that if some zoological classifications were surprising, “the reason is that the thing species does not exist”; and a book for children published in the first decade of this century explained flatly, “It is… for reasons of convenience that men have invented species. Nature knows no such distinction.” This was surely going too far, and Darwin himself allowed that many species were “tolerably well-defined objects.” The fact that the boundary between two entities may be unclear does not mean that they are not distinct: there is no exact line of demarcation between a patois, pidgin, or creole and an independent language, but we all know that German is a different language from English, and that Glaswegian is not. After all, Linnaeus’s system remains in use to this day. Moreover, in one respect Darwinism gave a new authority to nomenclature, since to classify species under one genus was now to make a historical statement, behind which stood an objective reality: it was to assert that these species derived from a common ancestry.

Ritvo feels that the “anxiety and passion” which she finds invading learned discussions of scientific nomenclature need accounting for, given the mundane nature of the issues involved. She suggests that, in some vague way, these disputes were related to conflicts in society as a whole, where traditional authority was under challenge but fighting back: “An energetically enforced standard of nomenclatural propriety would embody and reinforce hierarchical order both inside the zoological community and in the larger society to which its members also belonged.” She offers no real evidence to support these speculations, and one might rather suspect that the cause was odium academicum and the notorious tendency of the learned to get heated about matters which seem to the rest of the world to be of very limited importance. One might suppose that the scholar who calls a reading “culpable” and the critic who calls a method of literary analysis “dangerous” were engaged in issues of high moral urgency; and yet we know that it is not so.

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