Charles Darwin’s other mistake

Images: Charles Darwin, age 33 (with his son William Erasmus Darwin), public domain; Leucospermum bolusii, photo by Andrew Massyn, released to public domain.

When I was a grad student, it was de rigeur to proclaim that every good idea was already in The Origin of Species, and to express amazement that Charles Darwin could have been so right about so many things.  It’s probably the astonishingly rightness of the Origin – along with the rest of Darwin’s writing – that makes his huge error stand out so conspicuously.  That huge error, of course, was the idea of blending inheritance.  It didn’t work in theory, it wasn’t (even then) consistent with available data, and Darwin should have known both of those things.  (His correspondence suggests that he probably did.)

I recently ran across* another Darwinian mistake.  It’s not as scientifically consequential as his blending inheritance blunder, to be sure, but it’s an interesting one for what it says about the sociology and psychology of science, and the relationship between science and writing.  It has to do with – and hold on, don’t click away – the use of authorities with Latin (“scientific”) names.  Darwin disapproved.

Leucospermum bolusii – the real one.

If you’re not steeped in the technicalities of Latin naming, here’s the issue.  The “authority” for a species’ Latin name is the name of the scientist who first described and named that species.  It’s written out as part of the Latin name, as in Heteropoda davidbowie Jäger, the spider named by Peter Jäger in honour of David Bowie.  (Often the year of publication is included too, making David Bowie’s spider, in full, Heteropoda davidbowie Jäger 2008.)  In scientific writing, those who know what they’re doing include the authority on first mention of a species, then drop it (for brevity) through the rest of the piece.  Its function is simple: it ties a name clearly to the original species description.**  We wouldn’t need this, if all the world’s literature was well indexed and the history of every name was straightforward – but frequently one or both of these isn’t true.  Species descriptions can be in obscure publications and very hard to hunt down (it’s easy to think that everything is indexed online, these days, but it’s not true).  Worse, sometimes the same name gets applied to two different species, and we need to know which we’re referring to.  As an example, the South African shrub Leucospermum bolusii Gandoger 1901 is one species, but Leucospermum bolusii Phillips 1910 is another.  The Phillips name is invalid, because when he published it the name was already taken (the correct name is Leucospermum cordifolium (Salisb. ex Knight) Fourcade 1932, and yes, there’s some complication encoded there.)  But the fact that Phillips’ “Leucospermum bolusii” name is invalid doesn’t magically prevent it from appearing in the literature; and so unless authors use authorities, we can’t know for sure which species they’re talking about.

So using a name’s authority seems like a routine and rather uninteresting indexing convention.  How could Darwin have disapproved?  Disapprove he certainly did – fervently – as he explained in a number of letters.  In a letter to Joseph Hooker, he wrote

“I have lately been trying to get up an agitation…against the practice of naturalists appending for perpetuity the name of the first describer to species.  I look on this as a direct premium to hasty work.” 

Later, in a letter to Hugh Strickland, he expanded:

“I think a very wrong spirit runs through all natural history, as if some merit was due to a man (sic) for merely naming and defining a species; I think scarcely any, or none, is due… I do not think more credit is due to a man for defining a species than to a carpenter for making a box.  But I am foolish and rabid against species-mongers, or, rather, against their vanity; it is useful and necessary work that must be done; but they act as if they had actually made the species, and it was their own property”.

It’s hard not to feel that Darwin’s objection is a bit strange.  Darwin never hesitated to affix his name to his books and papers, or to cite authors of books and papers when he referred to their work in his own writing – without worrying about his own vanity, or that of the authors he was citing.  Thus, his worry was confined to naming, vs. other scientific contributions.  And Darwin’s own systematic work on barnacles included the naming of new species – so in order not to consider himself a “species-monger” he was forced to make unconvincing arguments that what he had done deserved credit even if those other people didn’t:

“…if he works out minutely and anatomically any one species, or systematically a whole group, he deserves credit, but I must think the mere defining a species is nothing” (same letter to Strickland).

Is “defining a species” nothing?  That’s an opinion that wouldn’t surprise us coming from certain quarters – nowadays it comes frequently in the form “taxonomy is nothing but stamp collecting” – but it’s a remarkably ignorant one.  It’s especially so for Darwin, given the importance of variation and species limits to his arguments and to our understanding of evolution by natural selection.  Or perhaps he objected, as the first letter implies, only to species description and naming done hastily and sloppily.  Can that happen?  Of course it can.  Could prominently recording who did the sloppy description make sloppy description even more likely?  Maybe – but that’s a data-free claim, and if there’s one thing Darwin was, it was fanatical (otherwise) in supporting claims with data.***  Darwin’s objections all seem to boil down to the notion that using authorities would encourage people – not him, mind you, but other people – to name as many species as they could, to bask in the glory of their own name appearing as the authority.  But without the use of authorities, he thought, people would name species only carefully and for the noblest of reasons.  How strange!

I suppose it’s possible to think of this as a just a poorly justified opinion rather than a “mistake”.  At least, it’s possible if you confine your thinking to the psychology of taxonomic motivation.  But what makes it an unambiguous mistake in my books is that even if you grant Darwin’s worry about authorities feeding vanity, he’s still wrong – because his argument isn’t even in the right domain.  He somehow decided that names with authorities were playing a function for the namer – but that’s nonsense.  Names with authorities are playing a function for the reader (of whatever text includes them).  We use authorities with Latin names not to feed namers’ egos, but to feed readers’ needs for clarity.  If a side effect of that is that a few careless “species-mongers” have  their misguided egos fed, that’s an unimportant accident.  In writing, it’s about the reader, and the needs of the reader.  Always.

Was Charles Darwin brilliant?  Of course.  Was he a good writer?  Absolutely.  But did he stumble badly on the authority issue?  You bet.

© Stephen Heard  June 11, 2019

*^In Kristin Johnson’s Ordering Life: Karl Jordan and the Naturalist Tradition (Johns Hopkins, 2012).  A more expansive discussion of Darwin’s position is in Poulton (1901) “The Influence of Darwin Upon Entomology” (Entomologist’s Record and Journal of Variation 13:72).

**^There are also authorities for combinations, such as the assignment of a species to a new genus, but they needn’t concern us here.

***^Of course, using authorities also makes it easy to recognize names due to a sloppy describer – thereby solving the very problem Darwin thought it caused.



7 thoughts on “Charles Darwin’s other mistake

  1. cinnabarreflections

    I don’t dispute your argument, Steve, but given the context of the period when Darwin was active, I am certainly willing to overlook what in the big scheme of things was a historically inconsequential error in judgment. How many species were even known to exist back then? Everybody makes mistakes – Albert Einstein was deeply offended when somebody criticized one of his manuscript in the review process I am still content ” to express amazement that Charles Darwin could have been so right about so many things”!


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Oh, I’m right there with you, I’m interested in Darwin’s mistakes largely because he was so right about so many things!

      As for how many species – I don’t have a firm number, but Darwin absolutely knew that it was a far larger number than Linnaeus etc. thought. Specimens were flooding back from European exploration and colonial expansion (including, of course, Darwin’s own). He certainly knew that the species description task was a huge one. Wouldn’t it be great if by now we knew how huge?


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  3. Carl Boettiger (@cboettig)

    Excellent post! Really enjoyed this. However, I can’t help thinking that Darwin’s real mistake here is just that he failed to anticipate the practical problems of species names, such as the name collision example you gave with Philips 1910.

    Did everyone else already realize the fragility of bare latin names and the possibility of things like name collisions, miss-applications, or species later being sub-divided? From the quotes above, you get these sense Darwin would be totally on board with using our modern taxonomic identifiers like Leucospermum bolusii, GBIF:8041005 ( to avoid such problems ambiguity? Or given that precise resolvable identifiers have not eclipsed the use of appending an authority to the name, was Darwin touching on an issue that may still be alive today?


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  6. Douglas in Norway

    Great blog … just what I needed to explain to a colleague why putting authorities on plant names is indeed sometimes useful (as if avoiding the disapproval of fierce taxonomic botanists were not motivation enough).



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