At the next Descartes Centre History of Science Colloquium, dr. Joeri Witteveen will give talk based on collaborative work with Staffan Müller-Wille from the University of Exeter. The title of his talk is: Of Elephants and Errors: Naming and identity in the history of Linnaean taxonomy.
In 2013, a team of taxonomists, zoologists, bio-informaticians, museum curators, and historians of science published their findings from an exciting scholarly journey. Through an unlikely combination of methods – the study of zoological works dating back to the 16th century, mass-spectrometry protein sequencing, ancient mtDNA analysis, X-ray imaging, and an excursion into art history – they established that a preserved elephant fetus that had been on Linnaeus’s mind when he introduced the name “Elephas maximus,” commonly known as the Asian elephant, was in fact a specimen of Loxodonta Africana, the African elephant.
The discovery was widely covered in the (science) news media. Nature and The New York Times reported on how modern science had shown Linnaeus to have been in error. But what, exactly, did the discovery amount to, and what sort of error did it expose? What could be the scientific significance of studying a single 250-year old elephant specimen using the latest molecular techniques? We use the case of Linnaeus’s “wrong” elephant specimen as a springboard for reflecting on the nature of error in taxonomy.
We begin by observing that, the attractions of the interdisciplinary detective story notwithstanding, it is not at all clear that the reexamination of Linnaeus’s elephant specimen led to a genuine scientific discovery, or that it unearthed an error that needed correcting. Next, we show that some of the news media drew conclusions from the study that go much further, and that aren’t supported by it. The news reports of what Linnaeus got wrong judge him by principles and standards of adjudicating on taxonomic identity that he did not subscribe to and could not have been familiar with. However, this mistake on behalf of the news reports at the same time prompts an interesting historical and philosophical question. For if Linnaeus did not subscribe to our philosophy of adjudicating on the identity and non-identity of taxa in the face of continuous revisions, then what principles and practices did he rely on?
We answer this question by switching from elephants to plants. Using a case study of Linnaeus’s revisions to the plant genera Erinus and Buchnera, we examine how his practices and procedures of revision generated and embodied conditions for establishing taxon identity that differ from those which contemporary taxonomists subscribe to. We explore what this means for attributions of error in the history of biological taxonomy and argue that (in a certain sense) the very possibility of being in error about taxon identity is a post-Linnaean phenomenon.