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Letter 1215

Darwin, C. R. to Strickland, H. E.

29 Jan [1849]

    Summary Add

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    Has altered and added to HES's list [compiled for Bibliographia zoologiæ et geologiæ, edited by Louis Agassiz and enlarged by HES, (1848–54)].

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    On zoological nomenclature CD cites a case in which he believes more harm than good would be done by following the rule of priority. Thinks the rule of the first describer's name being attached in perpetuity to a species has been the greatest curse to natural history. Every genus of cirripedes has a half-dozen names and not one careful description.

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    Sends a paper he once wrote [missing] on the subject [of zoological nomenclature].

Transcription

Down Farnborough Kent

Jan 29th

My dear Strickland

I have altered & added to your list & an awfully long one it is.— if anything is inserted which shd not be, you can strike out. There is one reference, as you will see by appended note, about which I know nothing, & have not the work to refer to.— I have arranged references, according to subject: there are some which I shd not have thought worth inserting, which I have marked.—

What a labour you have undertaken; I do honour your devoted zeal in the good cause of Natural Science.— Do you happen to have a spare copy of the Nomenclature rules published in Brit. Assoc. Trans; if you have & wd give it me, I shd be truly obliged, for I grudge buying volume for it.— I have found the rules very useful; it is quite a comfort to have something to rest on in the turbulent ocean of nomenclature, (& am accordingly grateful to you) though I find it very difficult to obey always.— Here is a case, (& I think it shd have been noticed in rules). Coronula, Cineras & Otion are names adopted by Cuvier, Lamarck, Owen & almost every well-known writers, but I find that all 3 names were anticipated by a German: now I believe if I were to follow strict rule of priority more harm wd be done than good & more especially as I feel sure the newly fished up names wd not be adopted.— I have almost made up my mind to reject rule of priority in this case: would you grudge the trouble to send me your opinion.—

I have been led of late to reflect much on the subject of naming & I have come to a fixed opinion that the plan of the first describer's name being appended for perpetuity to species has been the greatest curse to natural History.— Some months since I wrote out the enclosed badly drawn up paper, thinking that perhaps I wd agitate the subject, but the fit has passed & I do not suppose I ever shall: I send it you for the chance of your caring to see my notions. I have been surprised to find in conversation that several naturalists were of nearly my way of thinking. I feel sure as long as species-mongers have their vanity tickled by seeing their own names appended to a species, because they first miserably described it, in two or three lines, we shall have the same vast amount of bad work as at present, & which is enough to dishearten any man who is willing to work out any branch with care & time. I find every genus of cirripedia has half a dozen names & not one careful description of any one species in any one genus.— I do not believe that this wd have been the case, if each man knew that the memory of his own name depended on his doing his work well, & not upon merely appending a name with a few wretched lines indicating only a few prominent external characters.— But I will not weary you with any longer tirade— Read my paper or not just as you like & return it, whenever you please.

Your's most sincerely, C. Darwin

    Footnotes Add

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    f1 1215.f1
    Possibly a list of CD's books and papers requested by Strickland for his edition of Louis Agassiz's Bibliographia zoologiæ et geologiæ. This work was based on lists of authors and their publications compiled by Agassiz in the preparation of his Nomenclator zoologicus (1842–6). Strickland corrected and greatly enlarged the lists, which were eventually published in four volumes (Agassiz 1848–54). CD's works (22 items) are listed in volume two, pp. 175–6.
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    f2 1215.f2
    Strickland, in his preface, described the work as a ‘labour of love’ and stated that it had been compiled in his spare time with no financial incentives (Agassiz 1848–54, 1: xii).
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    f3 1215.f3
    Both Strickland and CD had served on a British Association committee on zoological nomenclature (see Correspondence vol. 2) that had drawn up the rules published in Report of the 12th meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held at Manchester in 1842 Transactions of the sections, pp. 105–21 (Strickland et al. 1842). Offprints were also distributed. There is a copy of the British Association Committee report in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
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    f4 1215.f4
    Ignaz Franz Werner Maria von Olfers in Olfers 1818.
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    f5 1215.f5
    See letter from H. E. Strickland, 31 January 1849, for his reply. CD eventually yielded to Strickland's arguments and adopted Olfers's name Conchoderma for the genus divided by William Elford Leach into Otion and Cineras, thus strictly adhering to the rule of priority. Although the quarterly journal in which Olfers's paper was published is dated 1818, CD believed the paper was printed in 1814, hence before Leach published in 1817 (Living Cirripedia (1851): 136–7 n.). Coronula, the name given by Jean Baptiste Lamarck to a genus of sessile cirripedes in 1802, was retained in Living Cirripedia (1854): 397.
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    f6 1215.f6
    The original has not been found, but an abstract in Strickland's hand is preserved in the Strickland papers, University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. It reads: In the paper wh accompanied his letter of Jan 29 1849, Mr Darwin argues that the practice of retaining for perpetuity the name of the person who first gives a specific denomination, however imperfect his description may be, is a direct premium to hasty work—and that it would be better to use the specific name by itself, without any such appendage— The only practical utility in the first describer's name being retained appear to be 1, to know at a glance from his reputation, whether his work is trustworthy; 2, as a guide where to search for a description; 3, to ascertain the priority of a plurality of names; 4, as a premium to exertion. 1. It may be urged that had it not been for the encouragement thus given to naming, instead of studying, species, specific names wd not have been so rashly given. 2 As a guide to descriptions the plan is very deficient, for the first description is often a bad one— 3. For bibliographical purposes this practice is admitted to be useful. 4 As a premium to exertion it is worse than useless, as naturalists ought to require no such stimulus. When any fact regarding a species is stated, we want to know what the species is, and not, who first named it. Therefore when the simple binomial designation is insufficient for the former purpose, it is better to append, instead of the first denominator's name, a reference to a standard work, thus “A— b— (in Lamarck, An. Invert.)” &c. In the case of the commonest species even this appendage wd be unnecessary In systematic works, of course many such references wd be given to each species, including the original describer's, which might be placed first, but no preeminence shd be given it by attaching it to the specific heading. “But if the first description was originally imperfect, & had been superseded by any better description, it wd perhaps be better to omit all reference to it, for the sooner such an author's name was buried in oblivion the better” This plan does not interfere with the law of priority, but only rejects the appendage of the first describer's own name. We thus gain nearly the same advantages as at present, for 1, tho' we cannot judge at a glance of the 1st describer's reputation yet we have the authority of a later author to the same effect. 2, we have a reference to a good description. 3, we are put on the track at least, to the priority of the name. 4, We absolutely destroy the empty ambition of name-coining, and offer some premium to good work. A naturalist shd let his reputation rest, not on the number of the species he describes, but on the general importance of his services to Nat. Hist.
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