The first biological species concept

Before this text in 1686, the term species just meant some sort or kind of organism. It was a Latin word in ordinary use without much meaning in natural history, but then arguments began whether or not there were one or more species for this or that group, and so it became important to know what was meant by the term in natural history. That is, a distinctly biological concept of species was needed, and John Ray gave it here:


The translation is this:

In order that an inventory of plants may be begun and a classification (divisio) of them correctly established, we must try to discover criteria of some sort for distinguishing what are called “species”. After long and considerable investigation, no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed. Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individuals or the species, if they spring from the seed of one and the same plant, they are accidental variations and not such as to distinguish a species … Animals likewise that differ specifically preserve their distinct species permanently; one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa. [Historia plantarum generalis, in the volume published in 1686, Tome I, Libr. I, Chap. XX, page 40 (Quoted in Mayr 1982: 256)]

So now you know what was said and where. Note that this is not a "biological" species concept - there is nothing here about interfertility; it is a generative conception of species - things are one species if they generate the same forms reliably.

More like this

He is clearly not giving spontaneous generation the time of day. I think his definition is biological, as opposed to mystical, in that it treats the biology of the organism as definitive. Is this definition not subsumed, or assumed, in the present day Biological Species concept? We all expect interbreeding within a species to produce more of the same, and thus see no reason to carry on about it?

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 12 May 2009 #permalink

As a side issue one of the things I most admire about some of the thinkers of this period is the way in which their research led them to reject certain claims which had reinforced religious belief. Spontaneous reproduction was one such claim.

Dr. Tancred Robinson (a close friend of Rays) really put the myth of spontaneous reproduction to bed despite the fact that one other very close associate of both Ray and Robinson, Edward Llwydd used the myth to place fossils in a firm biblical framework.

Sir Robert Moray had already reported the existence to the Royal Society of spontaneous reproduction at work in the Western Isles of Scotland. He had gazed through a convex glass at tiny Barnacle goose embryos in their shells plucked from a rotting log drifting on the North Atlantic. Robert Moray may have used scientific instruments to see more clearly and legitimise his beliefs in a supernatural realm but his eyes were blinded by faith.

The Goose barnacle claim goes back to the mid-12th century at the latest. I have written on it before here and as you know, here. But it is not at all clear to me that this is due to religious belief. Spontaneous generation was a widely held belief dating from Aristotle. I think it likely that people saw what theory demanded they should see (which makes Robinson and others like Redi even more admirable); and that religion then used these ideas for its own purposes (like allowing the bishop to eat the Barnacle Goose on Friday, because it was not meat but fish).

I may be wrong John, research is not finished but with any sort of belief like this they are generally subject to change so it's meaning in the 12th cen is not necessarily going to be the same as the late 17th cen.

I concentrate particularly on belief at this time in Scotland.

One example would be Alexander Ross ( Scots minister) and his discussion of the Phoenix in Arcana Microcosmi, in which you see many of the usual subjects all grouped together to reinforce the belief, the phoenix, the silk worm, and the barnacle goose. Their was certainly an effort to make the Phoenix appear more barnacle goose like from the 16th century by emphasising it's relationship with the palm tree.

Close to the end of his discussion Ross "The like I may of the Phoenix, which is a miracle in nature, both in his longevity, numerical unity, and way of generation. And in this wonderful variety the Creator manifests his wisdom, power and glory."

He even uses alleged comparative anatomy at one point to prove the case. Ross is the kind of guy Tancred or Ray have to contend with. His use of the subject seems pretty clear.
The words wonder, wonderfull and god do tend to pop up in Scottish texts at least in relation to the barnacle goose more than once in this period.

If you look at Robert Boyles little experiment in Scotland to prove the existence of a supernatural realm by empirical methods you find in related correspondence by the like of Samuel Pepys and others a particular interest in what he terms the clay goose (from the Scots Clakis goose or Barnacle goose)

Martin Martin who wrote one of the earliest ethnological works in Scotland on the western isles taking a particular intrest in local belief is completely silent on the barnacle goose despite the fact it was at the time one of the most famous aspects of belief from this area and remained so for a considerable period (The barnacle goose forms an important part of the introduction to J.F Campbellâs collection of folktales of the western isles as Robert Murray had recorded the belief before)

Martin Martin is out to demonstrate the existence of a supernatural realm but he uses prophecy instead. His only comments on Sir Robert Murrays trip was to deny he had visited. Martin's views came under considerable attack in London from thinkers not particularly drawn to religion. His unusual silence on the barnacle goose suggests it had lost all credibility as a supernatural phenomenon by this time in London and he was trying to watch his back.

But I have some work ahead to finish things so my view may change but looks resonable for Scotland at least at the moment.

By jebmcleish (not verified) on 14 May 2009 #permalink

p.p.s Sir Thomas Browne's remarks on the Phoenix (It's what Ross was responding to.

Browne and Ross do seem to go on about copulation and species a lot; Browne certainly does seem to do a fair amount of head scratching on the subject in his works. But thats not my area of knowledge.

"PhÅnix hath no distinction of Sex, and therefore continueth not his species by copulation, as other creatures do."

By jebmcleish (not verified) on 14 May 2009 #permalink

One of the joys of regularly visiting Johnâs blog is that one comes across many well informed and intelligent people; I strongly suspect that this is the only place in the inter-tubes where one could meet somebody holding forth informatively about Alexander Ross. However I would be very careful about attributing religious motives to Rossâ utterances.

Ross was an ultra-radical conservative and was against anything and everything that was either new or foreign or even worse both. My favourite piece of Ross is a passage in one of his writings where he complains vehemently about the introduction of new fangled French sauces into the English cuisine. Iâm not sure what enrages him more the fact that the sauces are new or that they are French! He is of course referring to the French roux sauces which were introduced into England in the early part of the 17th century. (Please donât ask me for a source for this, as Iâm not sure if I could find it in a hurry and I donât have time at the moment to look for it)

Rossâ motives are those of a reactionary and as such not necessarily religious, which is not to say that you may not be right in this case but I would be very careful before committing myself if I were you.