A nineteenth century view on classification

The principle upon which I understand the Natural System of Botany to be founded is, that the affinities of plants may be determined by a consideration of all the points of resemblance between their various parts, properties, and qualities; that thence an arrangement may be deduced in which those species will be placed next each other which have the greatest degree of relationship; and that consequently the quality or structure of an imperfectly known plant may be determined by those of another which is well known. Hence arises its superiority over arbitrary or artificial systems, such as that of Linnaeus, in which there is no combination of ideas, but which are mere collections of isolated facts, not having any distinct relation to each other.

This is the only intelligible meaning that can be attached to the term, Natural System, of which Nature herself, who creates species only, knows nothing. Our genera, orders, classes, and the like, are mere contrivances to facilitate the arrangement of our ideas with regard to species. A genus, order, or class, is therefore called natural, not because it exists in Nature, but because it comprehends species naturally resembling each other more than they resemble any thing else.
The advantages of such a system, in applying Botany to useful purposes, are immense, especially to medical men, with whole profession the science has always been identified. A knowledge of the properties of one plant is a guide to the practitioner, which enables him to substitute with confidence some other that is naturally allied to it; and physicians, on foreign stations, may direct their inquiries, not empirically, but upon fixed principles, into the qualities of the medicinal plants which nature has provided in every region for the alleviation of the maladies peculiar to it. To horticulturists it is not less important: the propagation or cultivation of one plant is frequently applicable to all its kindred; the habits of one species in an order will often be those of the rest; many a gardener might have escaped the pain of a poisoned limb, had he been acquainted with Natural affinity; and, finally, the phenomena of grafting, that curious operation, which is one of the grand features of distinction between the animal and vegetable kingdoms, and the success of which is wholly controlled by ties of blood, can only be understood by the student of the Natural System. [John Lindley, A Natural System of Botany, Longman et al. 1836, viii]

This is almost exactly the justification of phylogenetic analyses, contrary to those who think that there is something else important about them, like history or technique.

5 thoughts on “A nineteenth century view on classification

  1. “This is the only intelligible meaning that can be attached to the term, Natural System, of which Nature herself, who creates species only, knows nothing. Our genera, orders, classes, and the like, are mere contrivances to facilitate the arrangement of our ideas with regard to species.”

    Doesn’t this contradict modern ideas, including phylogenetic taxonomy (and Darwin’s own thinking), in which species are fluid constructs?

    It seems to me, in light of the variety of species concepts that have been proposed, that a lot of “species” are contrivances just as much as higher taxons are.

    I suggest that the real ‘natural’ taxonomic unit is the syngameon. I first came across this term in Peter Price’s Biological Evolution, one of my fourth-year-course textbooks. The word refers to the collection of all ‘species’ linked by various hybridizations (it’s “the most inclusive interbreeding group”). This is equivalent to a Biological Species Concept treated with all possible seriousness. It would also, arguably, correspond to a reproduction-defined biblical kind (“holobaramin” in the terminology of modern creationist “baraminologists”).


    1. Species were fluid constructs in Lindley’s day too, but people then (as now) thought they were real things. Someone has written a book on this… if only I could remember who.


  2. I thought (apparently mistakenly) that technique would be important to any analysis, especially as they do change over time and can effect results. Not so?


  3. “but people then (as now) thought they were real things.”

    Got me thinking about barnacle geese. I find it vexing the way natural historians still present the barnacle goose as a single species that’s consistent through time.

    The goose is a variety of kinds that is classified by the notion of an imagined shared characteristic. A range of waterfowl are subject to the term based on the belief they share the same form of reproduction.

    Serious biological myth.

    What gets classified as such is going to differ depending on local environment, food economy and belief but a single species it ain’t prior to modern biological understanding.

    I wonder if its the ‘reality’ of species that motivates modern species concepts being projected into the past. Gives it the timeless reassuring nature of myth.

    I think it also demonstrates fluidity being important allowing larger scale institutional beliefs to fit in to local niches without issue, tension or contradiction.Fluidity rather vital in removing the potential for conflict and dissent.

    Glad you have kept going with the blog, its useful. If you keep it up it may be forced into the horrifying position of actually publishing something in an obscure folklore journal.


  4. I have been thinking about Lindley’s “view on classification” since John posted it. I see it as a characteristically British view of things, re-expressed some hundred twenty years later by the advocates of phenetics, and later still by current trends in molecular systematics — particularly the view that larger and larger data sets bring the truth of things closed and closer.

    The historical discussion of natural and artificial systems was advanced by A-P de Candolle in the 1810s. There is really no excuse for their being confounded by later writers, particularly British ones. Nor is there an excuse for berating Linnaeus, for he did not confound them


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