§2. Natural Classifications


224. There are two remarks more about natural classification which, though they are commonplace enough, cannot decently be passed by without recognition. They have both just been virtually said, but they had better be more explicitly expressed and put in a light in which their bearing upon the practice of classification shall be plain. The descriptive definition of a natural class, according to what I have been saying, is not the essence of it. It is only an enumeration of tests by which the class may be recognized in any one of its members. A description of a natural class must be founded upon samples of it or typical examples. Possibly a zoölogist or a botanist may have so definite a conception of what a species is that a single type-specimen may enable him to say whether a form of which he finds a specimen belongs to the same species or not. But it will be much safer to have a large number of individual specimens before him, from which he may get an idea of the amount and kind of individual or geographical variation to which the given species is subject. In proportion as the category of the class is higher, the greater will be the need of a multiplicity of examples. True, a naturalist may be so familiar with what a genus is, what a family is, what an order is, what a class is, that if you were to show him a new specimen of a hitherto unknown class, he could, with that single specimen before him, sit down and write out definitions, not only of its class, but also of its order, of its family, and of its genus, as well as of its species. Such a feat would display marvellous familiarity with what those categories [mean] in botany and in zoölogy; but intellectually it would be a performance of no high order, and the less so the greater the certainty of the conclusion. Generalization broad, luminous, and solid must enter into an intellectual performance in order to command much admiration. Such generalization, which teaches a new and clear lesson upon the truth of which reliance can be placed, requires to be drawn from many specimens. We shall endeavor, in that way, to define each class, that is to enumerate characters which are absolutely decisive as to whether a given individual does or does not belong to the class. But it may be, as our kets show, that this is altogether out of the question; and the fact that two classes merge is no proof that they are not truly distinct natural classes.

225. For they may, nevertheless, be genealogically distinct, just as no degree of resemblance between two men is proof positive that they are brothers. Now genealogical classification, among those objects of which the genesis is genealogical, is the classification we can most certainly rely upon as being natural. No harm will be done if, in those cases, we define the natural classification as the genealogical classification; or, at least, [if] we make the genealogical character one of the essential characters of a natural classification. It can not be more; because if we had before us, ranged in ancestral order, all the intermediate forms through which the human stock has passed in developing from non-man into man, it is plain that other considerations would be necessary in determining (if it admitted of determination) at what point in the series the forms begin to merit the name of human.

226. The sciences are, in part, produced each from others. Thus, spectroscopic astronomy has for its parents, astronomy, chemistry, and optics. But this is not the whole genesis nor the principal part of the genesis of any broad and definite science. It has its own peculiar problem springing from an idea. That geometry derived its birth from land surveying is the tradition, which is borne out by the tradition that it took its origin in Egypt where the yearly floods must have rendered accurate surveying of special importance. Moreover, the wonderful accuracy of the dimensions of the great pyramid exhibit a degree of skill in laying out ground which could only have been attained by great intellectual activity; and this activity could hardly fail to lead to some beginnings of geometry. We may, therefore, accept with considerable confidence the tradition involved in the very name of geometry. Speaking in a broad, rough way, it may be said that the sciences have grown out of the useful arts, or out of arts supposed to be useful. Astronomy out of astrology; physiology, taking medicine as a halfway out of magic; chemistry out of alchemy; thermotics from the steam-engine, etc. Among the theoretical sciences, while some of the most abstract have sprung straight from the concretest arts, there is nevertheless a well-marked tendency for a science to be first descriptive, later classificatory, and lastly to embrace all classes in one law. The classificatory stage may be skipped. Yet in the truer order of development, the generation proceeds quite in the other direction. Men may and do begin to study the different kinds of animals and plants before they know anything of the general laws of physiology. But they cannot attain any true understanding of taxonomic biology until they can be guided by the discoveries of the physiologists. Till then the study of mollusks will be nothing but conchology. On the other hand the physiologist may be aided by a fact or two here and there drawn from taxonomic biology; but he asks but little and that little not very urgently of anything that the taxonomist can tell him and that he could not find out for himself.

227. All natural classification is then essentially, we may almost say, an attempt to find out the true genesis of the objects classified. But by genesis must be understood, not the efficient action which produces the whole by producing the parts, but the final action which produces the parts because they are needed to make the whole. Genesis is production from ideas. It may be difficult to understand how this is true in the biological world, though there is proof enough that it is so. But in regard to science it is a proposition easily enough intelligible. A science is defined by its problem; and its problem is clearly formulated on the basis of abstracter science. This is all I intended to say here concerning classification, in general.

228. Having found the natural classes of the objects to be classified, we shall then use the same methods — probably, in most cases, the third — in order to discover the natural classes of those classes that we have found. Is this the whole business of classification? No serious student can hold it to be so. The classes found have to be defined, naturally if possible, but if not, then at least conveniently for the purposes of science. They have not only to be defined but described, a story without an end. This applies, of course, not merely to the species or immediate classes of the objects described, but to the higher orders of classes. There may also be between the different classes relations, each of which appertains just as much to the description of any one of the set of classes to which it belongs as to any other.

229. In regard to the higher orders of classes, so far as concerns animals, Louis Agassiz 1) thought that he was able to characterize in general terms the different categories of classes which zoölogists talk of. That is, he undertook to say what sort of characters distinguish branches from branches, classes from classes, orders from orders, families from families, genera from genera, and species from species. His general classification of animals has passed away; and few naturalists attach much importance to his characterizations of the categories. Yet they are the outcome of deep study, and it is a merit of them that they involve no attempt at hard abstract accuracy of statement. How can he have been so long immersed in the study of nature without some truth sticking to him? I will just set down his vague definitions and allow myself to be vaguely influenced by them, so far as I find anything in the facts that answers to his descriptions. Although I am an ignoramus in biology, I ought by this time to recognize metaphysics when I meet with it; and it is apparent to me that those biologists whose views of classification are most opposite to those of Agassiz are saturated with metaphysics in its dangerous form — i.e. the unconscious form — to such an extent that what they say upon this subject is rather the expression of a traditionally absorbed fourteenth century metaphysics than of scientific observation.

230. It would be useless for our purpose to copy the definitions of Agassiz P1) had he not expressed them in the briefest terms, as follows:

Branches are characterized by the plan of structure;

Classes, by the manner in which that plan is executed, as far as ways and means are concerned; (»Structure is the watch-word for the recognition of classes.« Page 145.)

Orders, by the degrees of complication of that structure; (»The leading idea . . . is that of a definite rank among them.« Page 151.)

Families, by their form, as determined by structure; (»When we see new animals, does not the first glance, that is, the first impression made upon us by their form, give us a very correct idea of their nearest relationship? . . . So form is characteristic of families; . . . I do not mean the mere outline, but form as determined by structure.« Pages 159, 160.)

Genera, by the details of the execution in special parts;

Species, by the relations of individuals to one another and to the world in which they live, as well as by the proportions of their parts, their ornamentation, etc.

231. All classification, whether artificial or natural, is the arrangement of objects according to ideas. A natural classification is the arrangement of them according to those ideas from which their existence results. No greater merit can a taxonomist have than that of having his eyes open to the ideas in nature; no more deplorable blindness can afflict him than that of not seeing that there are ideas in nature which determine the existence of objects. The definitions of Agassiz will, at least, do us the service of directing our attention to the supreme importance of bearing in mind the final cause of objects in finding out their own natural classifications.


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