Monday, November 19, 2018

Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnaeus by William MacGillivray

The king of classification and his predecessors
Carl Linnaeus
William MacGillivray (1796-1852) was a Scottish naturalist. His name may ring a bell with birders because his colleague John James Audubon named a bird species after him, the MacGillivray’s Warbler. MacGillivray’s book, Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnaeus, was published in 1834. I came across this book while searching for a biography of Carl Linnaeus, the 18th-century Swedish biologist known as the father of taxonomy. For those seeking an education into this distinguished scientist’s accomplishments, this volume will serve you well. The entire second half of the book—13 chapters—is devoted to Linnaeus.

MacGillivray starts his book with two chapters on Aristotle, which are also quite interesting. Everything in between, however, is painfully boring. Even Pliny the Elder’s death at Pompeii from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius can’t liven things up, and the extremely long chapter on British naturalist John Ray, who must have been a personal hero of MacGillivray’s, is excruciating. MacGillivray doesn’t so much offer biographies of these figures as bibliographical histories. From his summarizing of what had been published in the field of zoology, it is remarkable how few books on animals actually existed prior to the 18th century. For many of the personages profiled here, zoology was merely a sidelight. Most were botanists first, perhaps because plants are much easier to examine than animals. Many were also physicians by profession, and several also studied for positions in the clergy. MacGillivray’s book was published before the theory of evolution was proposed, so it is taken for granted that species were created as is by God, and the author comments on his subjects’ piety almost as much as their scientific discoveries. The profiles in the book are not entirely adulatory. MacGillivray is quick to point out the mistakes made by his illustrious predecessors and the fact that many of them merely summarized prior research rather than engaging in first-hand research of natural phenomena.

Not so with Linnaeus, the book’s guest of honor. MacGillivray makes it clear that Linnaeus had a monumental impact on biological science. Linnaeus invented the system of classification and nomenclature that biologists still use today to assign plants and animals to kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. In one of his comprehensive texts, Linnaeus classified 7,000 species of plants and animals, nearly all those known to the Western world at the time. His accomplishments in botany were even more prodigious than his work in zoology. Linnaeus even applied his classification system to the mineral kingdom. While today species are arranged in an evolutionary family tree, Linnaeus, working prior to an awareness of evolution, classified plants and animals according to morphological characteristics, primarily for the purpose of identification. While much has changed since then, the overall systematic structure he established still remains in use. As MacGillivray points out, Linnaeus made his share of errors, some of which brought him ridicule even during his lifetime, but there is no denying his important and enduring contributions to scientific knowledge. MacGillivray details Linnaeus’s expeditions, his teaching career, his catalog of publications, and his family life (with nothing good to say about Mrs. Linnaeus). MacGillivray’s treatment may be too thorough for some readers, but those with an interest in natural taxonomy will find much food for fascination amid the copious detail.

The content on Linnaeus is worth a solid four stars; the rest of the book brings the overall rating down. If you just want to learn about Linnaeus, I would recommend skipping the first half entirely.

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