“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.

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.

This Issue

November 20, 1997