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Points of Order

One kind of conflict for which she does provide some examples was that between nations. Like diplomats in their chanceries and soldiers in the field, scientists could use nomenclature to claim territory for their countries: Ritvo cites the case of the British ornithologist who named a South American bird Rhea darwinii, although it had already been otherwise named by a Frenchman. Yet she is only half right to say, “Thus, ironically, the Linnaean terminology originally designed to serve the supranational community…had come to replicate the separation of rival national cultures.” The meridian line is based on Greenwich, the platinum bar on which the defining length of a meter is scratched is kept in Sevres, near Paris, and the international dialling code for the USA is 1; the name of the country does not appear on British postage stamps or on US e-mail addresses. Such things, for those who care about them, may bring some prestige to the nations in question (the French resisted the Greenwich meridian for a number of years), but they are nonetheless part of genuine advances in global cooperation. It is because the scene is truly supranational that the patriot wants to see his flag flying there.

However, there are cases where nomenclature does acquire a political importance. It is also true that different names for the same object can produce different emotional effects: some names, for example, are more evocative or more literary than others. If the rose were called banksia or forsythia, it would smell as sweet, but it could not be brought so easily into a romantic lyric (when Betjeman put forsythia into one of his poems, he almost necessarily gave it a comic, albeit sentimentally comic, inflection). Such aesthetic considerations start to have a social significance at the point where the poetical and the political intersect. George Orwell once observed that “we call our islands by no less than six different names. England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion.” Well, Albion is no longer available now, without absurdity, for even the loftiest flights, though there was a time when even in the New World some half-hearted attempts were made to mimic such national poeticisms—“Hail, Columbia,” and so on. These various names have different resonances: it is an inconvenience that “England” has often seemed emotionally right when “Britain” is meant; “England expects…” was Nelson’s signal, and “Goodbye, United Kingdom’s rose” was not a possible tribute to Princess Diana.

These oddities have practical consequences in political discourse to the present day, exacerbated by the fact that there is no adjective equivalent to either the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. To use “British” of Northern Ireland (juridically correct) may seem to imply unionism; to call it Irish (geographically correct) may seem to imply that the whole island is naturally one political entity. Seamus Heaney once wrote a poem complaining of being included in a book of British verse, but it is hard to see what else the compilers could have called it. The history of the New World has thrown up the oddity that “North American” denotes a wider area than “American.” In Iberian countries, where South America looms larger, the US is often designated by the adjective “nord-americano“; but then what term can you use for the North American continent as a whole?

New World inhabitants from countries other than the US sometimes pretend to feel indignant about the appropriation of their continent’s name by one nation, but on the whole this seems merely a terminological inconvenience, like the use of “quadruped” for “mammal,” though not so easily remediable. Regional names may be more insidious. “Latin America” sets culture in opposition to geography; most people are surprised to be told that Mexico City is North America’s biggest city. The very existence of the name “Europe” is Europocentric: the fact that this western promontory of the Asian land mass should be dignified with the status of a separate continent imposes a certain view of the world.

Political names, as such, are not one of Ritvo’s concerns, but her chapter on breeding turns from animals to people. In this matter, the effect of science seems to have been on the whole virtuous. The label Homo sapiens asserts the essential equality of all mankind, and Ritvo indeed cites a number of scientists who emphasized that all human beings constituted one species. (We seldom reflect on how much more troubled our morality would be if Homo neanderthalis had survived, let alone Homo erectus.) The division of mankind into racial groups was a thornier field, and Ritvo describes a good number of bizarre and distasteful beliefs. Yet science was not to blame—or at least, good science was not. Physical anthropology was an entirely proper study, and it seems fair to say that it was only preexistent beliefs in the extreme inequality of races which led to such claims as this, from one medical professor: “The European passes during uterine and infantile life, through stages…which are the adult characteristics of…the Mongolian and African.”

Ritvo also talks about the “standard reifications of terms like mestizo, zambo, and quarteron according to the amount of ‘blood’ contributed by the various parent races”: this takes her beyond England, and indeed the English language, but she could of course have cited such terms as “quadroon” and “octoroon” instead. We may mistrust so keen an interest in the details of genetic make-up, but there is this contrast between past and present usage, that their terms purport to be exact, whereas ours tend to be blurry. “Black,” for instance, is commonly used of people with a large admixture of European ancestry. Historically, this presumably grew out of the injustice which treated even a small amount of “negro blood” as a taint, but today one may wonder if there is not an inequity of another kind in allowing black to trump white on all occasions. Colin Powell might seem to have as good a claim to be called WASP as black. WASP, indeed, is a particularly interesting term, since it does purport to be exact, and yet many people decline to believe that WASPs are among the poorest people in North America: Appalachian hillbillies just don’t count. Yet it would be intolerable to say that only rich businessmen should be called Jews. Perhaps WASP will survive as one of the rare racial terms that respectable people may still speak with a sneer.

In discussing stock rearing, Ritvo tellingly points to an ambivalence in the concept of breed. On the one hand, value was put upon the thoroughbred, with its purity of pedigree: on the other, the very idea of breeding suggests the artificial process of developing a strain, an operation which often included the use of crossbreeding. Applied to the human species, “breed” was a word which became especially favored in the patriotic discourse of the late Victorian and Edwardian ages, and it would be worth knowing what relationship there was, if any, between this usage and the language of animal husbandry. On the whole, “breed” seems to have been a fairly innocent term. Shakespearean sanction gave it a romantic flavor (“this happy breed of men”): it was a way of evoking shared historical experience across time. It is interesting, in Ritvo’s book, to hear a late-nineteenth-century zoologist stating that “the Jews, as a race, are more prepotent than the English—are better or purer bred.” No doubt it would be easy enough to set against this some examples of low-level anti-Semitism from the same period, but it does seem that the British contemplated their mongrel status without embarrassment, and even with pleasure. Another zoologist suggested that though mongrel was a correct term for a mixed breed, nevertheless, since it was often used as a term of reproach, it had better be avoided in talking about recognized breeds “which, however mixed or mongrel might have been their origin, have yet by vigilance and skill become…almost as marked and vigorous and distinctive as the Anglo-Saxon race itself,…whose mixed ancestry no one is anxious to deny.”

Ritvo’s chapter on monsters and deformities prompts another question about Anglo-Saxon attitudes. She claims (though it is not clear what the evidence is) that there was a steady increase in the demand for freak shows from the seventeenth century onwards; but in the early twentieth century Kenneth Grahame was noting the “disappearance of freaks and monstrosities” as “perhaps the greatest change that has taken place in show-life in our generation.” What turned the British from a coarse, Hogarthian mob to (in their own estimation) a soft-hearted, sentimental people, soppily kind to animals? John Wesley and Methodism is one answer that has been put forward, and although that is obviously too simple an answer to a complex question, there is probably something in it. If the demand for monsters did truly continue to grow in the nineteenth century, the likeliest explanations are the increase in population and the greater mobility made possible by the railways. We can probably stick to the view that the public grew more human in the course of the Victorian Age.

Perhaps Ritvo’s later chapters do not strictly have a great deal to do with classification. But she does show that there was some questioning about how Siamese twins should be classed, quoting one account of Chang and Eng, the pair who gave the name Siamese to their disorder, which began “Is it one man in two bodies…? Or, are they really two men—each as distinct from the other as Smith from Brown…?” Another Siamese pair, the black twins known as Millie Christine, were described as “the two-headed nightingale” and depicted wearing a single ample dress from which two torsos and four legs protruded. Yet there was no genuine problem. The pretense that two human beings might possibly be one was no more than an exploitative titillation, a sad parody of genuine classificatory dilemmas.

Ritvo’s final chapter, on diet, ends with a brief discussion of cannibalism. She declares on her last page that “the British were never classified as Homo europaeus anthropophagus [European man, eater of men]”—an ingenious means of argument by which a book on classification can be made a book on anything. In some cases, no doubt, classification may determine diet: if you decide to make a strong distinction, for example, between eating animals with cloven and uncloven hooves, that very taxonomy will direct your dietary practice. But in Ritvo’s British examples, the classifications seem to be secondary. The taboo against cannibalism is very basic; it is not because they are classed as Homo sapiens that we do not eat people. It is true that the British regarded eating horsemeat as a nasty French habit, but again this was not because of how horses were classified. Ritvo describes how some creatures were classed as game, others as vermin, others as pets. But it is obfuscatory to imply that it was because of their classification that this animal was hunted and that one cuddled. It was because people liked shooting certain animals that they called them game; it was not that some animals were classed as game and therefore got hunted. Anyway, as Ritvo notes herself, no animal was more keenly hunted than the fox, which was vermin. In all these cases, classifications appear to be effects, not causes.

Still, the huge range of out-of-the-way evidence that Ritvo brings to bear on her theme is impressive and absorbing. The Platypus and the Mermaid is a somewhat jumbly book about order, as its author has hinted herself, but it does explore the fascinating question of how far we shape language to fit our behavior and how far language shapes us. Humpty-Dumpty thought that the solution was easy. “The question is which is to be master—that’s all.” But Alice, with the wisdom of a seven-year-old, was not so sure.

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