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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Sharp's "The Object and Method of
Zoological Nomenclature" (S239: 1874)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A book review printed in the 5 February 1874 number of Nature. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S239.htm

    [[p. 258]] Zoologists and botanists universally adopt what is termed the binomial system of nomenclature invented by Linnæus. The essential principle of this system is, that every species of animal or plant is to have a name made up of two words, the second word--which is [[p. 259]] called the specific or trivial name, having exclusive reference to the species itself, the first word--which is called the generic name, indicating the genus, or small natural group, which comprises the species in question along with others. Thus the cat, the tiger, and the lion, belonging to one genus or small natural group of closely-allied animals, are called respectively, Felis cattus, Felis tigris, and Felis leo. The name of each species, therefore, shows us what group it belongs to, and thus gives us a clue to its affinities; and the system of nomenclature is to this extent classificatory. But, as the true natural grouping of species has not yet been agreed upon by naturalists, and genera have been in a state of incessant change from the time of Linnæus to the present hour (or for about a century), the names of an immense number of species have been repeatedly altered; and one of the first requisites of a good system of nomenclature--that the same object shall always be known by the same name--has been lost, in the attempt to make the name a guide to classification, while the classification itself has ever been fluctuating and still remains unsettled. As an example let us take the Snowy Owl. This has been placed by different ornithological authors in the genera Bubo, Strix, Noctua, Nyctea, Syrinium, and Surnia; and at the same time, owing to carelessness or error, a number of different specific or trivial names have also been used, such as scandiaca, artica, nivea, erminea, candida, and nyctea; and the various combinations of these two sets of names have led to the use of about twenty distinct appellations for this single species of bird. This example is by no means a very extreme one; and it represents what occurs over and over again, in varying degrees, in every department of zoology and botany.

    In order to determine in every case which of the names which are or have been in use is the right name, and so arrive at uniformity of nomenclature, certain rules have been pretty generally agreed upon, the most important of which is that of "priority." This means that the first name given to a species is to be the name used, even when it has never come into general use, but is now discovered in some scarce volume dated 80 or 100 years ago. But this absolute law of priority only applies to the specific or trivial name; in the case of the generic name no such absolute priority has been thought possible, because the genera of the old authors were very extensive groups, which have now been divided, in some cases into hundreds of genera. This process of division has, however, gone on step by step, one author dividing an old genus into three or four new ones, with new names; another dividing some of these still further, with more new names; another perhaps discovering that these genera were not natural, and grouping the species into genera on altogether different principles, and again giving new names. Genera have been thus subdivided to such an extent that the owls, for example, which Linnæus classed as one genus, now number more than fifty; and the ten British owls have to be placed in nine distinct genera.

    In the very ingenious and careful essay which has led to these remarks, Mr. David Sharp, a well-known entomologist, advocates a mode of attaining the great desideratum of naturalists--a fixed and uniform nomenclature of species--which has not, so far as we are aware, been suggested before, although it is at once simple and logical. He proposes that, not merely one-half, but the entire name of every species once given, should be inviolable, until by general consent some permanent classificatory system of naming species, analogous to that used in chemistry, is arrived at. The insect named by Linnæus Papilio dido should, for example, retain that name, although it must find its classificatory place in the genus Colœnis and the family Nymphalidæ; while the glossy starling of the East should retain the name Turdus cantor, given to it by Gmelin, although it is no thrush, and belongs to the genus Calornis. The name would thus remain fixed, however the place of the species in our classifications might be changed; and the very errors of the original describers might help us to remember the object referred to by directing our attention to the cause of their error in classifying it. A beginner might, it is true, be misled, but the mistake once pointed out, the very inappropriateness of the name would serve as an aid to memory, as in the well-known "lucus a non lucendo." It is also pointed out that the value of the binomial nomenclature as a guide to the affinities of a species is now almost lost, owing to the minute subdivision of the old well-marked groups and the consequent multiplication of genera. No one can remember the names of all the genera of beetles now that they exceed ten thousand, unless he devotes his life to their study; and even then the fixity of the names of all the old and well-known species would be a great help in the study of new classifications, or the use of modern catalogues.

    A great evil of the present system is, that while professing to keep the specific or trivial name inviolable, it often compels an entire change of name. This happens whenever, by a new arrangement, a species has to be placed in a genus which already contains the same trivial name. Two species thus come to have the same name, and one of these must be wholly changed. The evil of this system of perpetually changing names is not so much the trouble it gives us to find out what object a name really refers to (though that is serious) as the enormous waste of labour involved in the elaborate working out of synonomy [sic], rendered many fold more difficult by the complication of changes in both the generic and specific names, from a variety of causes. These difficulties are much greater in the case of genera than in that of species; and this portion of synonomy [sic] would be almost got rid of if it were decided that the first binomial name given to a species should never be changed. We should then avoid the absurdity of having hundreds of familiar names abolished, because a mere compiler of an early catalogue, who had perhaps never seen the objects themselves, divided them up almost at random into a number of named groups, or because some modern student thinks it advisable to split up every large genus into dozens of smaller ones.

    These appear to be weighty arguments in favour of Mr. Sharp's proposal, yet we are far from thinking that it will be adopted. For, after all, the changed names are but few in comparison with those which remain unchanged for considerable periods; and the charm of a nomenclature which is to a considerable extent classificatory is so great, that most naturalists will strongly object to giving it up. So long as the old name keeps within the bounds of the modern family (which is in most cases a [[p. 260]] stable and well-defined group) there might be little objection to retaining it; but when it leads to the use of a name indicating a distinct and often quite unrelated family--as Silpha scabra for one of the Lamellicornes, (Trox scabra) in the example given by Mr. Sharp--the system will, we apprehend, be almost unanimously rejected.

    Many minor details of nomenclature are discussed in the essay before us, and on some of these the author's views are more likely to meet ultimately with general acceptance. He objects strongly, for example, to the common practice among classical purists of altering all names which they consider to be not properly spelt or not constructed on true classical principles. For, as he justly remarks, the emenders can give no guarantee that their alterations will be permanently accepted, since others may come after them who will have different views as to classical orthography and propriety of nomenclature. He points in particular to the inconvenience of placing an H before many names which were originally spelt with a vowel, thus altering their places in an alphabetical arrangement, and creating a synonym for no useful purpose whatever.

    Although it appears to us pretty certain that the plan of returning to the first generic name given to a species will not be adopted, the proposal to do so may lead to a reconsideration of the practice of applying the law of priority to generic names, as all are agreed it must be applied to specific or trivial names. If the generic part of the name may be altered any number of times in accordance with altered views as to classification, the principle of priority in the mere name is so totally given up, that it seems absurd to use it for the purpose of resuscitating the obsolete appellations of early writers. When an author is admitted to have defined a natural genus, he should have full power to give a name to that genus, because it is really a new thing; and it is both illogical and inconvenient to reject his name because some former writer has given another name to a group, not the same, but which merely happened to contain some one or more of the same species. Again, we think Mr. Sharp's arguments suggest the advisability of opposing the splitting up of large genera into many smaller ones otherwise than provisionally; the old generic name continuing to be used till there is a concurrence of opinion as to the necessity of adopting the new ones. The older authors were often modest enough to do this; indicating natural divisions of large genera, but not naming them; whereas modern naturalists, as a rule, feel bound to give a new name to every fragment they can split off an established genus.

    It appears, then, to the present writer, that the plan best adapted to lead speedily to a fixed nomenclature, and at the same time one that will least offend the prejudices of zoologists, is as follows:--

    1. To adopt, absolutely and without exception, the principle of priority as regards specific or trivial names.

    2. To adopt the same principle for genera only so long as the generic character or definition of the genus remains unaltered; but whenever an original investigator defines a genus more completely than has been done before, he is to be left free to name it as he pleases. Every consideration of utility and common sense will of course lead him to retain a name already in use when the new genus does not materially differ from an older one; but of that he is alone the judge, and it should be absolutely forbidden to any third party to say that a name so given must be changed.

    3. Whenever genera which are widely recognised are split up into a number of proposed smaller ones, the old generic name should continue in use till further investigation determines whether the new groups are sufficiently well defined and natural to supplant the old one.

    In conclusion, it may be suggested that if zoologists who have paid attention to this subject would, after a careful consideration of Mr. Sharp's paper, state their own conclusions in the form of short propositions, accompanied by their reasons for them, a notion might be obtained, not only as to which system is intrinsically the best, but, what is of equal or perhaps greater importance, which is most likely to command general assent.

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