by C. R. W. Wiedemann
Published 1817 as "Ein Wort vorläufiger Erinnerung vom Herausgeber"
in: Zoologisches Magazin (Kiel) 1(1): 1-7
Translated from the German original by Martin Spies
Day by day discoveries in zoology are accumulating; thousands of new species are being found far and near; we are taking giant steps but still remain far from the goal. Almost everywhere, arbitrariness rules. Everybody is setting up new genera from known and new species; everybody gives new names without regard to the other. The same animal one often gets under three to four names, and under the same name one gets as many different animals, unless one names the namer along with the name. Show me the one who, if this goes on, in fifty years will give even only a barely tolerable synonymy. In the systematic description of nature one cannot say: THE NAME DOES NOT MATTER: It would be highly desirable that each new individuum receive and keep ONE name recognized by ALL; much time would thus be gained for more important research. That quick communication of new discoveries would contribute very much to this is undeniable, and any zoological institution would earn enormous merit simply by reducing, or better entirely preventing, the multiplication in the specific naming of one and the same item. But, of course, little yet is thus achieved for science, only time and effort is saved. Next to the firmly determined name firm determination of the species is the most important; what infinite value is gained this way! The introduction of the overly short descriptive phrases has almost hurt more than it helped. In a system numbering relatively few species it was more feasible to describe the more remarkable differences in a few words; but the more species more similar to each other are ranked beside each other by new discoveries, the less adequate a description poor in words becomes, the more difficult it gets to produce characters that shouldn’t apply to another species in the almost infinite ranks, and the more uncertain the decision must remain on a species to be determined according to the system. What is once firmly determined and exactly described as a species stands for eternity; may opinions subsequently change as much as they want. For some classes and orders of animals, determination of the genus is next in great importance; so that mere difference in the sex is not mistaken for difference in species, as has been the case so often in the birds and insects. The least one can demand of the describer of a new species is that he indicate whether the one or more individuals he is describing were males or females. Especially with the birds their age is also known to make a difference. Just consider Larus naevius and marinus Linn., the former is the young bird. Larus ridibundus gives an even more striking example: as an early nestling it is Gmelin’s Sterna obscura, then it becomes Latham’s brown gull, afterwards Larus erythropus Gm. Linn. Then Lar. cinerarius, and only in the end the animal has changed so much that it fits the description of Larus ridibundus. Lar. slesvicensis is also the same species, and thus we get half a dozen species from a single one. There are more such examples.
It was a splendid thought of the commended Count v. Hoffmannsegg that a normative museum [originally: "Normalmuseum"] for natural history should be set up in which, if possible, each species – having been subjected to the most critical examination – would be deposited as a prototype, as it were, so that each and every researcher could turn there for comparison and determination of any species doubtful to him or new in his opinion. We would like to go further and claim that no new species ought to be given its civil rights before it has been compared in the normative museum. Of course, many a know-half would then not bring his name and that of his child to be baptized down to posterity; but that would be pure gain for the others, and anybody taking a true interest in the progress of thorough science would gladly submit to the sanctions of the normative museum and strive himself for completion of the latter. In addition, it could not fail that for such a museum the most capable men would gather and further science by their unified endeavour. In particular, it could not occur to anybody to want to work on a larger order, or a class, or even on the entire animal kingdom, without procuring advice in the normative museum. If something like this had been granted to the industrious Gmelin for his edition of the Linnaean system of nature, would his work be so riddled with mistakes? And our great Fabricius, whose later
systems of the separate insect orders also contain a number of elements not worthy of the master, would he meet with this accusation had he been able to calmly work, compare, revise in such an institution? Instead, how did he have to move around like a nomad, to London, then Paris, then The Netherlands, in order to have at least a fair claim to having been exhaustive? And how uncomfortable is such a way of working! And how dearly missed is the opportunity to correct things by comparison! Is it any wonder then if species are presented in duplicate, others are falsely amalgamated, etc.? – Unfortunately, the installation of a normative museum, already initiated with the most liberal sacrifice, still has not been achieved, we do not want to fear
it has utterly failed. We prefer to hope that the community spirit, which has proved its worth so comfortingly and effectively in the great world quarrels at times of political danger, will prove itself again as science is in danger of confusion, feralization [originally: "Verwilderung"]
and anarchy, and that peoples and royalty will support and sponsor an institution that is needed as much as it would be productive. But until such a normative museum is firmly and permanently established somewhere, may the wide field of natural history be fertilized and thorough progress in its cultivation be furthered by measures to facilitate literary communication, and may everyone contribute his part to this. We are hoping to do so with the present journal, whose purpose it is to spread the zoological knowledge gained at home or abroad as much as possible. It need not be mentioned that a thorough treatment of zoology includes not only revision and description of known or new species, but also deeper research into the internal structure of the
latter. How much the splendid Cuvier has accomplished for systematics as well through his investigations in zoological anatomy! – How much do we owe, by the way, to the zoologists of Paris, and how large a share in their gratefully acknowledged research the great museum there has had, assembled though it was through light and wrong [originally: "per fas et nefas"]! Of course, they too have partly sinned and are among those to be blamed for the sour sweat it will cost some future workers to demystify synonymy; however, several of them have also given us splendid examples of how one should be working in zoology, and we shall criticize what’s poor without being ungrateful for the excellent.
Who denies the meritorious contributions of a Geoffroy, Lamarck, Latreille, Lacepède, Duméril, etc.? But who also wants to become guilty of such barbaric denominations and such descriptions after wallpaper paintings as, for example, Lacepède in his work on the fishes? Without justification some have tried to criticize Latreille for applying several genus names to different genera in his most recent works, contrary to the meaning given to them by Fabricius. We do not see mere obstinacy or French vanity in this, but a sacred right which by all means must be observed, if the most pernicious arbitrariness is not to catch on. To err with great men is excusable, to sin with them is punishable and not to be tolerated. May it always entail some discomfort to re-replace genus names used by Fabricius, it is THAT expert who first publicly applied an otherwise impeccable name to a certain genus who owns the undeniable right to immortalization, and a later or contemporary one who takes the liberty of using the same name for another genus has to stand aside with this. If we do not accept this as the solid norm, then there’s no end to instability [originally: "Schwanken"] and arbitrariness. Aside from Fabricius’s other great merits he can also be credited with having described the largest number of insect species; but, really, Latreille’s achievements in the more appropriate separation of genera are not much smaller, and even only in so far as this we could allow his usage of names to stand as well as that of Fabricius; but in addition Latreille has used the names like the earlier inventors did, who for their time were also competent people, or he has himself established the name and the genus, which [reflexive to ‘name’, not to ‘genus’, as evidenced by gender of German pronoun] Fabricius later applied to completely different genera, in a number of cases in flagrantly arbitrary fashion. Let’s take, for example, Volucella; this designation had been used long before by Geoffroy and Schäffer, two truly honourable men, for the same genus which Fabricius later called Syrphus while at the same time transferring the name Volucella to some Diptera which those earlier workers had not yet listed and which had little or no similarity to the syrphids. Likewise, Fabricius gave the name Bibio, which Geoffroy had already used to distinguish a number of animals that F. still kept under the genus Tipula, to completely different Diptera, and when he later saw (not until the Suppl. Ent. syst.) that he had to recognize that genus of erstwhile
Geoffroyan Bibios [originally: "Bibionen"], he again rather arbitrarily gave them the name Hirtea. In turn, Fabr. applied Thereva, the name Latreille had early on ("Précis des Caractères géneriques" and later "Hist. nat. des Insectes") given to the Bibios of Fabr., to totally different flies again, and we could place here several more such examples.
However, what now is not only fair but also productive? We believe to hold fast to the principle that puts an end to all instability: to protect the rights of those who gave names first, that is to reuse the names given by commended experts in their original meaning, if they do not disagree with the recognized principles of good name formation in any other way. This single information measure, although adopted late, will set a limit and end to future confusion the soonest. For it is not the little bit of honour which the name brings to the one who gives it – certainly all those mentioned above have something better on which their scientific merits rest – rather it is the advantage to the whole that calls for this measure. Science is the common property of all nations, that is without regard to whether a Frenchman or a German, an Englishman or a Swede gave the name. Credit where credit is due!
Names carry value like coins, the sound of the name, not its contents, is to remind us of the named; beware of altering an old name that has earned civil rights for itself, because perhaps in one way or another its meaning may no longer fit the genus. Are we not experiencing already how inappropriate newer scientific names are becoming that are supposed to denote the composition, origin or qualities of the things and bodies to which they are given? Just as our views change, our concepts reform themselves, such namings must experience losses in descriptive quality, and then it can no longer be the concept carried in the name, but only the sound and familiarity that lead us to the named object without mistake. However, if on one hand it is appropriate that in the future we proceed more thoughtfully with naming, then on the other hand what stands of older names shall stand, and no newcomer shall dare banish old names to replace them with supposedly more descriptive ones which instead increase the difficulties. In general, let us take care that over the mere meagre name-giving and registrating systematics the more important issues – research into internal structures, the ways of living, the artistic drives, the interactions of the individual with the whole – are not missed, that we aspire to higher purposes, review and examine the available material and build on it a great and worthy whole that, though not beyond improvement, shall be more durable than many an artifact for which unstable ground and unsound construction from the beginning lead to the earliest of collapses.
Content by F. Christian Thompson
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Last Updated: November 23, 2004 by Irina Brake