Letter icon
Letter 1223

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

8 Feb 1849

    Summary Add

  • +

    The priority rule has only diverted vanity to a rush to be first. Has no objection to CD's suggestion that good books be quoted in preference to first descriptions if there is a chance by this means of developing this silly vanity into ambition to advance knowledge. Still, this must not affect the rule of priority. Responds to CD's four cases.


The Lodge Tewkesbury

Feb 8. 1849.

My dear Darwin,

Pray do not apologize for the length of your letters on nomenclature as I am always glad to meet with any one who appreciates the importance of the subject, not indeed as being a science, but the vehicle of science, in which if its wheels be ricketty, Science herself will be upset,—or run away with.

A few years ago, before the law of priority was so generally admitted as now, the vanity of species-mongers took a different turn, each man trying to supersede his neighbour by “improving” the existing nomenclature, and deliberately changing names however generally current. (Leach, Wagler, Swainson, Neville, Wood, &c to wit). To remedy this evil, which was fast chaotizing science the law of priority was loudly called for; & generally enforced. It now appears that vanity is not checked, but only diverted to a new course. Those who once obliterated the claims of others by substituting their own “improved” names (with the accompanying mihi), now hurry to be first in the species-market, like the Covent-gardeners with their green peas, a guinea a pint, at Xmas, and unripe strawberries, a shilling a dozen, in April.— Truly a pitiful competition, still It promotes horticulture, and so the vanity of species making promotes the collecting of materials, & to a certain extent the observation of facts so that it is at least one degree better than the improved-name-vanity of which I first spoke. If however there is the least chance of developing this silly vanity into an honourable ambition for the advancement of knowledge, by means of your proposed plan of quoting good Books in preference to first descriptions, I am sure I have no objection to it, and if you like to try the plan in your Cirriped work, I shall look with much interest to see how the plan answers.—

Still this must not be allowed to affect the law of priority. Every Systematic work ought, as a matter of history to place the earliest description first in the list of synonymes, and as a matter of justice, to adopt the earliest specific or binomial name. This is a principle which I cannot bring myself to give up on ground of convenience, especially as by a general adherence to it, convenience would ultimately coincide with justice.

In Gray's Genera of birds this principle has been rigorously adhered to, and though I have had to unlearn a great number of specific names in consequence, yet I feel satisfied that the advantages of a simple and certain rule more than counterbalance the inconvenience of its introduction. For instance, Buffon described and figured some hundreds of new birds under French names only. Gmelin gave Latin names & definitions to them, & these names have been used by Latham, Shaw, Temminck, and numerous later authors. But (in an unlucky hour I admit) the diligent G. R. Gray dug up in the Library of the Brit. Mus. a very rare tract by a Dutchman named Boddaert, containing a set of Latin binomial names, referring (without a word of description) to Buffon's species, & 5 years prior to Gmelin. Most unfortunate I grant it is that ever Boddaert lived or Gray discovered his book, still Buffon's descriptions are good & recognizable; Boddaert had as good a right as Gmelin to give Latin names to Buffon's species; it was Boddaerts misfortune that his work remained in obscurity while Gmelin's became popular; & I cannot therefore do otherwise than follow G. R. Gray in using Boddaert's names, & can only exhort others, for the sake of future peace & tranquillity, to do the same—

I had intended (as you advise) simply answering your queries without launching into argument, but I could not stop when once started.

So now for case A. Lister, & Hill's first edition are prior to 1758, & are therefore altogether out of court. I should say the same of Hill's 2d edn if it be a mere reprint, but if it be an improved edition, revised by the author himself, and adopting the binomial method, it would be entitled to the same privileges as an original post-Linnean work— In that case Pentalasmis would be the name to adopt, but if Hill's 2d edition be only a reprint, then Anatifa, Bruguière, 1792 would stand (= Pentalasmis, Leach, & = Pentalepas Blainv. as synonymes). Or if there is reason to suppose that Anatifa was a mere blunder of Bruguière or his printer, of course you may write it Anatifera, & still quote Bruguière as the author.

B. As you state the case, Balanus must (however uncomfortable the change may be) give place to Balanites, and I can honestly say that I for one would always use the latter name, which is as much as I need say at present. But it appears to me that both Balanus and Balanites must yield to the old Linnæan name Lepas (restricted quantum Inf.) the type of which is Lepas balanus. The restriction of a genus does not cancel the original name. (See Brit. Assoc. Code, [SYMBOL] 3. and 4.)

Of course the law of priority can only be applied as far as there is evidence as to date. In works coming out in Nos. I always write the month and year on each sheet as I get them. Temminck's Planches Coloriées took 18 years to publish 600. plates, but I never could get the exact date of each livraison. I have therefore been obliged to assume that it was published with uniform rapidity, and by dividing 600 by 18, I get approximately the date of each plate & act accordingly with his names.—

C. In regard to Leach's Acamptosomata and Campylosomata I may say once for all that I never contemplated extending the law of priority, to higher groups than Genera and Species. I remember I wished to state this distinctly in [SYMBOL] 1, but it was overruled, though the general tenor of the code sufficiently shows it. The names of higher groups than genera, must I think be continually modified with the progress of science.

D A recognizable plate is per se regarded as a sufficient (tho' not commendable) specific definition, & it therefore, if accompanied by a binomial name, acquires the same right of priority as a description would do (e.g. plates in Gray's Genera of Birds) Of course a plate ought (morally speaking) to be accompanied by a description, still I think it may be conceded that a good plate, duly published, has as good a claim for priority as many an existing attempt at verbal definition.

I shall always be happy to send you an opinion (if worth having) on any case wh you may wish to put, & am your dev | H E S.

    Footnotes Add

  • +
    f1 1223.f1
    Johann Georg Wagler.
  • +
    f2 1223.f2
    Neville Wood.
  • +
    f3 1223.f3
    Covent Garden was the main London market for the sale of fruit and vegetables.
  • +
    f4 1223.f4
    G. R. Gray 1844–9.
  • +
    f5 1223.f5
    George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. The reference is to Buffon 1770–83.
  • +
    f6 1223.f6
    Johann Friedrich Gmelin, in his edition of Linnaeus's Systema naturae (Linnaeus 1788–93).
  • +
    f7 1223.f7
    John Latham.
  • +
    f8 1223.f8
    George Shaw.
  • +
    f9 1223.f9
    Coenraad Jacob Temminck.
  • +
    f10 1223.f10
    Pieter Boddaert. Strickland refers to Boddaert 1783, of which there were only two copies known in Britain at the time (Agassiz 1848–54). For a discussion of the classification of birds in the early nineteenth century see Farber 1982.
  • +
    f11 1223.f11
    Strickland is referring to the cases listed in the enclosure with letter to H. E. Strickland, [4 February 1849].
  • +
    f12 1223.f12
    In Living Cirripedia (1851): 67, the genus is called Lepas and Linnaeus is given priority for the name. Anatifa (Bruguières), Anatifera (Lister), and Pentalasmis (Hill) are listed as synonyms. A footnote explains CD's reasons for adopting Linnaeus's name and comments: ‘Had not Lister and Sir J. Hill published before the binomial system, their names of Anatifera and Pentalasmis would have had prior claims to Lepas.’
  • +
    f13 1223.f13
    CD was able to use Balanus in Living Cirripedia (1854) without contravening the law of priority since Jean Guillaume Bruguières coined the term ‘Balanite’ as the vernacular equivalent of the Latin Balanus, and vernacular names could not be used in place of Latin names, ‘which form the only legitimate language of systematic zoology’ (Strickland 1863, p. 8). Several Balanus species described by Darwin are cited as first named in Bruguières 1789–92.
  • +
    f14 1223.f14
    See letter from H. E. Strickland, 15 February 1849.
  • +
    f15 1223.f15
    Temminck and Laugier de Chartreuse 1838. This work was comprised of 102 parts, which appeared in instalments beginning in 1820.
  • +
    f16 1223.f16
    CD followed this principle in the case of Conchoderma (see letter to H. E. Strickland, 29 January [1849], n. 5).
Maximized view Print letter