Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Animalia paradoxa

Carl Linnaeus was born in RÃ¥shult, Sweden, on 23 May 1707.  His father Nils was the minister of the parish of Stenbrohult but was also an avid gardener, and the story goes that when Carl was young and got upset, Nils would bring him a flower and tell the little boy its name, and that always calmed him down.

The love of botany -- and of knowing the names of living things -- was to shape Carl Linnaeus's life.  Prior to his time, there was no systematic way of giving names to species; there were dozens of names in various languages for the same species, and sometimes several different names in the same language.  Additionally, the fact that this is before the recognition of the relatedness of all life meant that things were named simply by their superficial appearance, which may or may not indicate an underlying relationship.  We still have some leftovers from this haphazard practice, such as the various birds called buntings (from the Middle English buntynge, "small bird") that aren't necessarily related to each other.  (For example, the North American indigo bunting is in the cardinal family; the European pine bunting in the family Emberizidae.) 

Young Linnaeus was lucky enough not only to have supportive parents, but a variety of people who recognized his intellect and ability and nurtured him in his studies.  (Amongst them was the scientist and polymath Olof Celsius, whose nephew Anders gave us the Celsius temperature scale.)  He was primarily interested in botany, but quickly became frustrated with the fact that the same plant could have six different names in six different villages -- and worse still, it was impossible to communicate taxonomic information clearly to botanists in other countries, where the names would have come from their native language.

So he decided to do something about it.

Linnaeus came up with the idea of binomial nomenclature -- the "two-name naming system," more commonly called "scientific names."  Each species would be assigned a unique and unambiguous name made of the genus and species names, each derived from Latin or Greek (which were the common languages of science at the time).  The genus would include various related species.  His determinations of who was related to whom were based upon appearance -- this is long before genetics became the sine qua non of systematics -- and some of Linnaeus's classifications have been revised in the 250-odd years since he wrote his magnum opus, the Systema Naturae.  But even so, the system he created is the one we still use today.

And this is why scientists the world over will know, if you say Mustela nigripes, that you are talking about the black-footed ferret.  (The scientific name translates to... "black-footed ferret."  Just because they're fancy-sounding Latin and Greek words doesn't mean they're all that revelatory.)

So Linnaeus took the first steps toward ordering the natural world.  But what is less well-known is that he included a few animals in his book that are more than a little suspect -- and labeled them as such, illustrating an admirable dedication to honoring hard evidence as the touchstone for scientific understanding.

In a section called "Animalia paradoxa," Linnaeus listed some "species" that had been reported by others, but for which there was no clear evidence.  From the tone of his writing, it's obvious he was doubtful they existed at all, and was only including them to point out that any reports of them were based upon hearsay.  These included the following genera, along with his description of them:
  • Hydra: "body of a snake, with two feet, seven necks and the same number of heads, lacking wings, preserved in Hamburg, similar to the description of the Hydra of the Apocalypse of St.John chapters 12 and 13.  And it is provided by very many as a true species of animal, but falsely.  Nature for itself and always the similar, never naturally makes multiple heads on one body.  Fraud and artifice, as we ourselves saw [on it] teeth of a weasel, different from teeth of an Amphibian [or reptile], easily detected."
  • Monoceros: "Monoceros of the older [generations], body of a horse, feet of a 'wild animal,' horn straight, long, spirally twisted.  It is a figment of painters.  The Monodon of Artedi [= narwhal] has the same manner of horn, but the other parts of its body are very different."
  • Satyrus: "Has a tail, hairy, bearded, with a manlike body, gesticulating much, very fallacious, is a species of monkey, if ever one has been seen."
  • Borometz: "The Borometz or Scythian Lamb is reckoned with plants, and is similar to a lamb; whose stalk coming out of the ground enters an umbilicus; and the same is said to be provided with blood from by chance devouring wild animals.  But it is put together artificially from roots of American ferns. But naturally it is an allegorical description of an embryo of a sheep, as has all attributed data."
  • Manticora: "Has the face of a decrepit old man, body of a lion, tail starred with sharp points."
A manticore, from Johannes Jonston's Historiae Naturalis (1650) [Image is in the Public Domain]

I've always admired Linnaeus -- like him, I've been fascinated with the names of things since I was little, and started out with plants -- but knowing about his commitment to avoid getting drawn into the superstition and credulity of his time makes me even more fond of him.  He was unafraid to call out the Animalia paradoxa as probable hoaxes, and that determination to follow the rules of scientific skepticism still guides taxonomists to this day.

Of course, sometimes there are some bizarre "forms most beautiful and most wonderful" in the natural world, to borrow a phrase from Darwin.  When the first taxidermied pelts and skeletons of the duck-billed platypus were sent from Australia back to England, many English scientists thought they were a prank -- that someone had stitched together the remains of various animals in an attempt to play a joke.  And once convinced that they were real, the first scientific name given to the platypus was...

... Ornithorhynchus ("bird-billed") paradoxa.


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