Jefferson on classification

The following letter, from this site with permission, was written by Thomas Jefferson in 1814. Apart from demonstrating how low American political life has fallen from its high commencement point, Jefferson shows he was up on the latest disputes in taxonomy. It was written to a Dr John Manners.

The opinion which, in your letter of January 24, you are pleased to ask of me, on the comparative merits of the different methods of classification adopted by different writers on Natural History, is one which I could not have given satisfactorily, even at the earlier period at which the subject was more familiar; still less, after a life of continued occupation in civil concerns has so much withdrawn me from studies of that kind. I can, therefore, answer but in a very general way. And the text of this answer will be found in an observation in your letter, where, speaking of nosological systems, you say that disease has been found to be an unit. Nature has, in truth, produced units only through all her works. Classes, orders, genera, species, are not of her work. Her creation is of individuals. No two animals are exactly alike; no two plants, nor even two leaves or blades of grass; no two crystallizations. And if we may venture from what is within the cognizance of such organs as ours, to conclude on that beyond their powers, we must believe that no two particles of matter are of exact resemblance. This infinitude of units or individuals being far beyond the capacity of our memory, we are obliged, in aid of that, to distribute them into masses, throwing into each of these all the individuals which have a certain degree of resemblance; to subdivide these again into smaller groups, according to certain points of dissimilitude observable in them, and so on until we have formed what we call a system of classes, orders, genera and species. In doing this, we fix arbitrarily on such characteristic resemblances and differences as seem to us most prominent and invariable in the several subjects, and most likely to take a strong hold in our memories. Thus Ray formed one classification on such lines of division as struck him most favorably; Klein adopted another; Brisson a third, and other naturalists other designations, till Linnaeus appeared. Fortunately for science, he conceived in the three kingdoms of nature, modes of classification which obtained the approbation of the learned of all nations. His system was accordingly adopted by all, and united all in a general language. It offered the three great desiderata: First, of aiding the memory to retain a knowledge of the productions of nature. Secondly, of rallying all to the same names for the same objects, so that they could communicate understandingly on them. And Thirdly, of enabling them, when a subject was first presented, to trace it by its character up to the conventional name by which it was agreed to be called. This classification was indeed liable to the imperfection of bringing into the same group individuals which, though resembling in the characteristics adopted by the author for his classification, yet have strong marks of dissimilitude in other respects. But to this objection every mode of classification must be liable, because the plan of creation is inscrutable to our limited faculties. Nature has not arranged her productions on a single and direct line. They branch at every step, and in every direction, and he who attempts to reduce them into departments, is left to do it by the lines of his own fancy. The objection of bringing together what are disparata in nature, lies against the classifications of Blumenbach and of Cuvier, as well as that of Linnaeus, and must forever lie against all. Perhaps not in equal degree; on this I do not pronounce. But neither is this so important a consideration as that of uniting all nations under one language in Natural History. This had been happily effected by Linnaeus, and can scarcely be hoped for a second time. Nothing indeed is so desperate as to make all mankind agree in giving up a language they possess, for one which they have to learn. The attempt leads directly to the confusion of the tongues of Babel. Disciples of Linnaeus, of Blumenbach, and of Cuvier, exclusively possessing their own nomenclatures, can no longer communicate intelligibly with one another. However much, therefore, we are indebted to both these naturalists, and to Cuvier especially, for the valuable additions they have made to the sciences of nature, I cannot say they have rendered her a service in this attempt to innovate in the settled nomenclature of her productions; on the contrary, I think it will be a check on the progress of science, greater or less, in proportion as their schemes shall more or less prevail. They would have rendered greater service by holding fast to the system on which we had once all agreed, and by inserting into that such new genera, orders, or even classes, as new discoveries should call for. Their systems, too, and especially that of Blumenbach, are liable to the objection of giving too much into the province of anatomy. It may be said, indeed, that anatomy is a part of natural history. In the broad sense of the word, it certainly is. In that sense, however, it would comprehend all the natural sciences, every created thing being a subject of natural history in extenso. But in the subdivisions of general science, as has been observed in the particular one of natural history, it has been necessary to draw arbitrary lines, in order to accommodate our limited views. According to these, as soon as the structure of any natural production is destroyed by art, it ceases to be a subject of natural history, and enters into the domain ascribed to chemistry, to pharmacy, to anatomy, &c. Linnaeus’ method was liable to this objection so far as it required the aid of anatomical dissection, as of the heart, for instance, to ascertain the place of any animal, or of a chemical process for that of a mineral substance. It would certainly be better to adopt as much as possible such exterior and visible characteristics as every traveller is competent to observe, to ascertain and to relate. But with this objection, lying but in a small degree, Linnaeus’ method was received, understood, and conventionally settled among the learned, and was even getting into common use. To disturb it then was unfortunate. The new system attempted in botany, by Jussieu, in mineralogy, by Hauiy, are subjects of the same regret, and so also the no-system of Buffon, the great advocate of individualism in opposition to classification. He would carry us back to the days and to the confusion of Aristotle and Pliny, give up the improvements of twenty centuries, and co-operate with the neologists in rendering the science of one generation useless to the next by perpetual changes of its language. In botany, Wildenow and Persoon have incorporated into Linnaeus the new discovered plants. I do not know whether any one has rendered us the same service as to his natural history. It would be a very acceptable one. The materials furnished by Humboldt, and those from New Holland particularly, require to be digested into the Catholic system. Among these, the Ornithorhyncus mentioned by you, is an amusing example of the anomalies by which nature sports with our schemes of classification. Although with out mammae, naturalists are obliged to place it in the class of mammiferae; and Blumenbach, particularly, arranges it in his order of Palmipeds and toothless genus, with the walrus and manatie. In Linnaeus’ system it might be inserted as a new genus between the anteater and manis, in the order of Bruta. It seems, in truth, to have stronger relations with that class than any other in the construction of the heart, its red and warm blood, hairy integuments, in being quadruped and viviparous, and may we not say, in its tout ensemble, which Buffon makes his sole principle of arrangement? The mandible, as you observe, would draw it towards the birds, were not this characteristic overbalanced by the weightier ones before mentioned. That of the Cloaca is equivocal, because although a character of birds, yet some mammalia, as the beaver and sloth, have the rectum and urinary passage terminating at a common opening. Its ribs also, by their number and structure, are nearer those of the bird than of the mammalia. It is possible that further opportunities of examination may discover the mammae. Those of the Opossum are asserted, by the Chevalier d’Aboville, from his own observations on that animal, made while here with the French army, to be not discoverable until pregnancy, and to disappear as soon as the young are weaned. The Duckbill has many additional particularities which liken it to other genera, and some entirely peculiar. Its description and history needs yet further information.

In what I have said on the method of classing, I have not at all meant to insinuate that that of Linnaeus is intrinsically preferable to those of Blumenbach and Cuvier. I adhere to the Linnean because it is sufficient as a ground-work, admits of supplementary insertions as new productions are discovered, and mainly because it has got into so general use that it will not be easy to displace it, and still less to find another which shall have the same singular fortune of obtaining the general consent. During the attempt we shall become unintelligible to one another, and science will be really retarded by efforts to advance it made by its most favorite sons. I am not myself apt to be alarmed at innovations recommended by reason. That dread belongs to those whose interests or prejudices shrink from the advance of truth and science. My reluctance is to give up an universal language of which we are in possession, without an assurance of general consent to receive another. And the higher the character of the authors recommending it, and the more excellent what they offer, the greater the danger of producing schism.

I should seem to need apology for these long remarks to you who are so much more recent in these studies, but I find it in your particular request and my own respect for it, and with that be pleased to accept the assurance of my esteem and consideration.

Jefferson’s views on classification are tied closely into national pride; by adopting the Linnaean system, he manages to treat taxa in North America, like mastodons, as distinct from Eurasian taxa (a term not introduced until the early 20th century), contrary to Buffon’s tendency to classify in terms of apparent similarities. Buffon held that the North American taxa were “degenerate” forms of the Eurasian forms. Buffon, who followed the Jussieuan scheme (because it was, after all, the system of a Frenchman), tended to lump taxa because it was always possible to find similarities. The Linnaean system tended to identify species and higher taxa by the character essentialis, a unique set of characters for each taxon. However, Jefferson does concur with Buffon that taxa are just artificial, and that only “units” (individual organisms) exist.

While Jefferson is not entirely the paragon of enlightened virtue he is sometimes painted as, it’s not a bad thing for a politician to be intellectual enough to discuss such arcane matters. Even Obama couldn’t do this. Maybe Jeb Bartlett could.

12 thoughts on “Jefferson on classification

  1. Nice. ‘Arranging in conformity with its organization’ in terms of national pride.

    ‘Arcane Matters’ oddly before reading this was thinking of Fredrick’s Falconers, Been reading early 19th century accounts of Pleasurable activities for Sporting Gentlemen. They took pleasure in some surprising subjects. Aspects of these debates are in the public domain well distributed and it would seem discussed and understood.

    Grasp of history is often better as well but down to the fact as pre darwinian theory is still live and therefore the history and tradition still active in memory and discussion.

    Now it is a case of retro reconstruction from scratch as the historical landscape and memory shifted dramatically as material became irrelevant.

    My thoughts were turning to thinkers being described historically as semi- detached from the culture they are part of. A being out of culture. It seems at times far from the case but certainly not always.


  2. You should perhaps take a glance sometime and think on its anatomical history and mythology.

    That area of the beavers anatomy has long been a site of error and speculation that lead to observation and interesting conclusions. But a messy protracted business.

    The beaver was a virtuous animal, selfless and upright because it threw its genitals to escape the hunter. Mistaken notion that this part of its anatomy was used in perfume production and its most high valued part; Its actually the dried castor sac mixed with beaver urine that was (still is) used.

    How had the beaver worked out this survival strategy? Was a much discussed topic. Mix of morality, education, entertainment favored by a particular branch of the medieval education system.

    Observation confirmed that not only was it the most saintly of creatures but it lived in an ordered social society and had a range of distinctly interesting habits and dispositions.

    Its the start of a debate on instinct and intelligence that will run. If it’s anatomy had demonstrated the fact the it had the organs capable of producing speech it is to be suspect one philosopher would have memorable declared it human.

    Beavers anatomy was a site of error and speculation that inspired close observation and scrutiny.

    A wonderful creature!


  3. Maybe if he hadn’t had slaves to do some of the work Jefferson would have had less time to be so “enlightened”. I strongly suspect that Bill Clinton would have been able to discuss similarly sophisticated topics and Barack Obama is far from ignorant.


      1. Thank you for the link to the essay by Henry Weincek, I’d known some of that before but it’s good to see more of it. The founders fetish, especially the hagiography of Jefferson is used by the most regressive, racist and benighted part of American politics to prevent progress. I don’t think it’s entirely accidental that such “enlightenment” figures are useful to them. The more I read about the enlightenment the less enlightened it seems. Even at that time there were people like John Woolman who seemed to see more by the inner light than Jefferson did. I’m a lot more favorably impressed by the 19th century abolitionists than I am by Jefferson.


          1. It’s possible for there to be flaws in a major biography of someone who has left the enormous paper trail that Jefferson left and quite possible for there to be variant interpretations of him, scholars all defending “their” Jefferson against others. There is no way of denying that the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence held large numbers of human beings in slavery so he could maintain an extravagant, aristocratic way of life, supported by mortgaging their lives. That is what his library, his studies, his luxuries and comfort was based on. It is what made it possible for him to do those things that he is famous for now. It is what makes him a total hypocrite for all of history to witness. It is why any biographical view of him that ignores that hypocrisy is a falsification. The Jefferson that most people hold in their hearts and minds is a fraud.


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