[This translation, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada, is in the public domain, and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged, released September 1999]
Table of Contents
Considerations of the Natural History of Animals, Their Characteristics, Their Interrelationships, Their Organic Structure, Their Distribution, Their Classification and Their Species
Throughout nature, where man works diligently to acquire knowledge, he is forced to use particular methods, as follows: (1) to arrange in an orderly way the infinitely numerous and varied objects which he examines; (2) to make clear distinctions among the immense multitude of these things, whether the groups of those in which he is at all interested in learning about, or each particular one of them; (3) finally, to communicate and hand down to his colleagues everything which he has learned, noticed, and thought about concerning them. Now, the means which he uses in such views of nature constitute what I call the artistic parts in the natural sciences, parts which one must be careful not to confuse with the laws and the acts of nature herself.
Just as it is necessary to distinguish in the natural sciences between what belongs to art and what is a feature of nature, so also in these sciences one must distinguish between two very different interests which bring us an understanding of the natural productions which we can observe.
The first is an interest which I call essentially economic, because it derives its source from the economic and pleasurable needs of human beings relative to the productions of nature which they wish to make serve their own ends. From this point of view, a person is interested only in those things which he thinks can be useful to him.
The other, very different from the first, is that philosophical interest which makes us want to know nature herself in each of her productions, in order to grasp her progress, laws, operations, and to give ourselves an idea of all that she has brought into existence, in a word, which provides that sort of knowledge which truly constitutes the naturalist. Those who occupy their time with this point of view, which can include only a small number, take an equal interest in all the natural productions which they can observe.
The economic and pleasurable needs at first lead people to imagine in succession the different artistic parts used in the natural sciences. And when we reach a stage where we are thoroughly interested in learning about and understanding nature, these artistic parts still offer us help in this study. Thus, these same artistic parts are indispensably useful, whether to help us with the knowledge of particular things or to assist us in the study and the advancement of natural sciences, or finally to enable us to keep track of where we are in the midst of the enormous quantity of different things which are the basis of the main study.
Meanwhile, the philosophical interest which the sciences in question present, although less universally felt than the interest which stems from our economic needs, forces us to separate everything which belongs to art from what is the exclusive property of nature herself and to place within convenient limits the considerations which one must pay to the former concerns in order to attach to the latter all the importance which they deserve.
In the natural sciences, the artistic parts are the following:
1. the systematic distributions, whether general or particular;
2. the classes;
3. the orders;
4. the families;
5. the genera;
6. the nomenclature, whether of the various sections or of particular things.
These six sorts of groups generally used in the natural sciences are uniquely the products of the art we must use to arrange and divide and to prepare ourselves to study, compare, recognize, and refer to the different natural things we see. Nature has never made anything like this, and instead of doing ourselves an injustice and confusing our works with hers, we must recognize that in this business the classes, orders, families, genera, and nomenclatures are inventions of ours, which we are not capable of doing without but which we must use with care, subjecting them to acceptable principles, so as to avoid arbitrary changes which destroy all the advantages of such a system.
Undoubtedly, it is indispensable to classify the productions of nature and to establish among them different types of division, such as classes, orders, families, and genera. Finally we must determine what we call the species and assign special names to these various sorts of things. Our limited faculties demand that we do this; we must have some means like this to help us fix our knowledge about this prodigious multitude of natural bodies which we can observe and which are infinitely varied amongst themselves.
But these classifications, several of which have been so fortunately devised by naturalists, together with the divisions and sub-divisions which they display, are entirely artificial tools. None of that, I repeat, is found in nature, in spite of the foundation which some parts of the natural scale known to us (apparently isolated examples) seem to give them. Moreover, we can state that among her productions nature has not really created fixed classes, orders, families, genera, or species, but only individuals which succeed each other and which look like those which produced them. Now, these individuals belong to infinitely diversified races, which are blend into each other in all forms and in all degrees of organic structure. Each of these individuals preserves itself without change, so long as there is no reason for change working on it.
Let us explore some specific developments concerning each of the six artistic parts used in the natural sciences.
Systematic Distributions. I call systematic distributions, whether general or particular, all series of animals or plants which do not conform to the order of nature, that is to say, which do not represent either the entire order or some part of that order, and consequently which are not founded on a consideration of well established interrelationships.
We are now perfectly justified in acknowledging that an order established by nature exists in her productions in each kingdom of living things: this order is the one according to which each of these bodies was originally formed.
This same order is unique, essentially without division in each organic kingdom, and can be known to us with the aid of an understanding of the particular and general interrelationships which hold among the different things which are the parts of these kingdoms. Living things which come at the two extremities of this order have, in essence, the least interrelationship and display in their organic structure and their form the greatest possible differences.
This very order is the one which must replace, to the extent that we understand it, these systematic or artificial distributions which we have been forced to create in order to organize in a convenient way the different natural bodies which we have observed.
In fact, with these various organic bodies, recognized by observation, at first we thought only of the usefulness and the ease of distinctions among them, and, so far as their distribution is concerned, we have taken so long to study the order of nature herself, that we did not even suspect its existence.
Hence have arisen all sorts of classifications, artificial systems and methods, based upon such arbitrary considerations, that these distributions change their principles and their natures almost as frequently as authors preoccupy themselves with the subject.
With the plants, the sexual system of Linnaeus, as ingenious as it is, offers a general systematic distribution; and so far as the insects are concerned, the entomology of Fabricius offers a particular systematic distribution.
It was necessary in recent years for the philosophy of natural sciences to make all the progress which we know it has achieved, for us to be finally convinced, at least in France, of the need to study the natural method, that is to say, to seek out in our distributions the very order unique to nature, for this order is the only one which is stable, independent of all arbitrariness, and worthy of the natural scientist's attention.
Among the plants, the natural method is extremely difficult to establish, because of the obscurity which governs the characteristics of the inner organic structure of these living organisms and because of the differences which plants of various families can present. However, since the scholarly observations of Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, we have taken a giant step in botany in the direction of the natural method; numerous families have been formed by taking the interrelationships into account. But a firm determination of the general arrangement of all the families among themselves, and thus the general arrangement of the entire order, remains to be done. In truth, we have found the start of this order, but the middle and especially the end of it are still quite arbitrary.
The situation is not the same so far as animals are concerned. Their organic structure, much more pronounced, presents different systems which are easier to grasp. This has allowed work on them to move further ahead. In addition, the very order of nature, in the animal kingdom, is now sketched out in its principal groups in a stable and satisfactory way. Only the limits of the classes, their orders, families, and genera are still dealt with arbitrarily.
If systematic distributions among the animals are still made, these distributions, at least, are only particular, like those for things which belong to one class. Thus, up to the present, the distributions which we have made of the fish and the birds are still systematic distributions.
In dealing with living things, the more one goes down from the general to the particular, the less essential are the characteristics which serve for the determination of interrelationships, and thus the more difficult it is to come across the very order of nature.
Classes. The name class is given to the first type of general divisions established in a kingdom. The other divisions made among these classes then receive other names. We will mention that in a moment.
The more advanced our understanding of the interrelationships among the things making up a kingdom becomes, the more the classes established for the initial division of this kingdom are good and appear natural, if, in forming them, one had classes which destroyed the hierarchy and the simplicity of the divisions which Linnaeus proposed in his example and which have been generally adopted.
The diversity of things which belong to a class, whether of animals or plants, is sometimes so large that it is then necessary to establish many divisions and sub-divisions among the objects of this class. But the interest of science wants the artistic part to be always as simple as possible, in order to facilitate study. Now, this interest allows, undoubtedly, all the necessary divisions and sub-divisions, but it is opposed to all the divisions and subdivisions having special designations. It is necessary to set a limit to the abuses of nomenclature. Without such a limit, nomenclature would become a more difficult subject to understand than the very things which one ought to be considering.
Orders. The name order is given to the main divisions of the sort which initially divide a class. If these divisions promote a method for creating others by subdividing them, these subdivisions are no longer orders. It would be very inconvenient to give them that name.
For example, the class of mollusks makes it easy to establish among these animals two large main divisions, the ones having a head, eyes, and so on and reproducing by coupling, while the others are headless, eyeless, and so on, and do not undergo coupling in reproduction. The cephalid mollusks and the acephalid mollusks must therefore be considered the two orders of this class. However, each these orders can be divided into several distinguishable sections. Now, this consideration is not a reason which can justify giving the name order, nor even that of sub-order, to each of the sections concerned. Thus, these sections dividing the orders can be considered as sections, just as some large families are themselves susceptible to being further sub-divided.
Let us preserve in the artistic part the great simplicity and the fine hierarchy established by Linnaeus, and if we frequently need to sub-divide the orders (i.e., the main divisions of a class), let us make these sub-division as many as necessary without giving them special designations.
The orders which divide a class must be determined by important characteristics which extend to all the things constituting each order, but we must not assign to them a special name applicable to the objects themselves.
The same thing must take place with regard to the sections which necessity requires one to make in the orders of a single class.
Families. We give the name family to the parts of the natural order recognized in one or another of the kingdoms of living things. These parts of the natural order are, on the one hand, not as large as the classes and even of the orders and, on the other hand, they are larger than the genera. But however natural families may be, all the genera which they include being conveniently grouped by their true similarities, the limits which one places around these families are always artificial. Thus, to the extent that we will study further the productions of nature and observe new ones, we will see, among naturalists, constant variations in the limits of families. Some naturalists divide a family into several new families, others combine several families into a single one, and still others make even more additions to an already known family, enlarging it, thus pushing back the limits which had been assigned to it.
If all the races (what are called the species) which belong to a kingdom of living creatures were perfectly known and if the true interconnections which occur between each of these races and between the different groups which they form were similarly understood, in a way in which everywhere the interconnection of these races and the placing of their various groups followed the natural interconnections of these things, then the classes, orders, sections, and genera would be families of different sizes; for all these sections would be large or small parts of the natural order.
In the case I have just mentioned, there is no doubt that nothing would be more difficult than to assign limits to separate these different sections. Arbitrary designations would make them vary constantly, and we would agree about only those which some gaps in the series clearly established for us.
Fortunately, in order to carry out the art which we need to introduce into our distributions, there are so many animal and plant races still unknown to us and there are so many which will probably stay that way for ever, because the places where they live and other circumstances will always obstruct, that the resulting gaps in the extent of the series, whether of animals or plans, will for a long time yet, and perhaps forever, provide us ways of limiting most of the groups which must be formed.
Usage and a sort of necessity demand that we assign to each family as to each genre a particular name applicable to the objects which compose it. Hence, it follows that the variations in the limits of families, their extent, and their determination will always be a reason for changes in their nomenclature.
The Genera. We give the name genus to the groups of races, called species, brought together following a consideration of their interconnections and constituting thus small limited series by the characteristics with which one chooses arbitrarily to define them.
When a genus is created well, all the races or species which it includes are similar in their most essential and most numerous characteristics, and they must be ranked naturally one beside the other, without differences amongst them except by less important characteristics sufficient to distinguish them.
Thus, well constructed genera are really small families, i.e., true parts of the very order of nature.
But just as the series to which we give the name families are susceptible to variation in their limits and their extent, through the opinion of authors who arbitrarily change the criteria which they use to form them, so the limits which define the genera are also similarly exposed to infinite variation, because different authors, according to their whim, change the characteristics used to determine them. Now, since the genera demand that a particular name be assigned to each of them and since each variation in the determination of a genre brings with it almost always a change in the name, it is difficult to express how much the constant changes in the genera harm the advancement of the natural sciences, by creating cumbersome synonyms, overloading the nomenclature, and making the study of these sciences difficult and disagreeable.
When will naturalists consent to subject themselves to the principles of a common agreement in order to regulate themselves in a uniform way in the establishment of genera, and so on? But seduced by the consideration of the natural interconnections which they recognize between the objects which they have compared, almost all of them still think that the genera, families, orders and classes which they establish are really in nature. They do not attend to the fact that the good series which they manage to form with the aid of studying interrelationships are really in nature, for they are the large or small portions of nature's order but that the lines of separation which they are concerned to draw from one part to another to divide up the natural order are not at all natural.
Thus, the genera, families, various sections, orders, and even the classes are really parts of art, however natural the well formed series which make up the different groups may be. Without doubt, their establishment is necessary, and their aim has an evident and indispensable utility. However, so as not to destroy, by the abuses which always recur, all the advantages which these artistic endeavours provide us, it is necessary that the creation of any one of them must be subject to principles, rules agreed to once and for all. Then all naturalists need to follow them.
Nomenclature: Here we are concerned with the sixth of the artistic practices which we must use for the advancement of the natural sciences. We call nomenclature the system of names which we assign, whether to particular things, like each race or species of living things, or to different groups of these things, like each genus, family, and class.
In order to designate clearly the object of our nomenclature, which includes only the names given to species, genera, families and classes, we must distinguish nomenclature from the other artistic practice which we call technology, the latter being uniquely relevant to the denominations we assign to the parts of natural bodies.
"All the discoveries, all the observations of naturalists would necessarily fall into oblivion and be lost for society's use, if the things which they observed and sorted out had not received a name which could serve to designate them immediately, when we talk about them or refer to them." (Dict. De Botanique, art. Nomenclature)
It is quite evident that nomenclature in natural history is an artistic practice and that it is a means which we have had to use to fix our ideas concerning the natural productions we observe and to communicate either these ideas or our observations concerning the objects with which these ideas deal.
Without doubt this artistic practice must be subjected, like the others, to agreed-upon and universally followed rules. But I must note that the abuses which it manifests everywhere in the uses to which it has been put and of which we have so many reasons to complain, arise mainly from those which were introduced and which still daily multiply in the other artistic practices already referred to.
In fact, because the lack of agreed upon rules concerning the formation of genera, families and even classes exposes these artistic practices to all sorts of arbitrary variations, the nomenclature has gone through a series of changes without limits. It can never be fixed as long as this lack remains, and the number of synonyms, already immense, will always increase and will become more and more incapable of fixing such a disorder, which cancels all scientific advantages.
If we had considered that all the lines of separation which we can trace in the series of objects which make up one of the kingdoms of living things are really artificial, except those which result from gaps needing to be filled, none of this would have happened. But this point has not been considered; people have not entertained doubts about the matter, and almost every day right up to the present, naturalists have had nothing else in view but to establish distinctions among things. Let me demonstrate this point.
"In fact, to reach a point where we could gain and keep using all these natural things within our reach and which we can make serve our needs, we felt that an exact and precise determination of the characteristics unique to each thing was necessary and thus that we had to seek out and determine the particularities of organization, structure, form, proportion, and so on, and so on, which differentiate the various natural bodies, in order to be able always to recognize them and distinguish them from each other. This is what naturalists, through examining objets, have succeeded in achieving, up to a certain point.
"This part of the work of naturalists is the one which is the most advanced. For good reason, in approximately the past century and a half, we have made immense efforts to improve the work because it helped us to understand what was newly observed and to remember what we had already learned and because it had to fix our knowledge of things whose properties are or will be then be recognized as useful to us.
"But the naturalists leaned too heavily on the use of all these ideas about the lines of separation which they were able to get to divide up the general series, whether of animals or plants. They turned their attention almost exclusively to this sort of work, without considering it from a realistic point of view and without thinking of listening to each other, that is, without establishing first convenient rules to limit the range of each part of this large enterprise and to establish the principles for each method of determining things. Thus, a number of abuses were introduced, so that each one changed arbitrarily the criteria for the formation of classes, orders, and genera, and continually published different systems of classification. Hence, the genera underwent constant changes without limits, and the productions of nature, as a consequence of this poorly thought out process, continually change their names.
As a result, nowadays the number of synonyms in natural history has become frightening, each day the science becomes more and more obscure, and it wraps itself up in almost insurmountable difficulties. The best human efforts to establish ways to recognize and distinguish all that nature presents to observation and use are transformed into an immense maze which one trembles to enter, with good reason." Discours d'ouvert. Du Cours de 1806, p. 5 and 6.
There we see the consequences of our forgetting to distinguish what really belongs to art and what is unique to nature and of forgetting to concern ourselves with finding agreed-upon rules to determine less arbitrarily the divisions which need to be made.
[Back to johnstonia Home Page]