§2. The Natural Method (Ray)

Linnaeus was so deeply convinced that God had created the species that the issue of an epistemological theory about the units of life and the methods for their description was only of secondary importance to him. He was convinced that the species were directly discernible and could be described adequately by indicating the one trait differentiating each from the genus proximum .

In spite of the forcefulness and ambitiousness of Linnaeus' overall outline, a tendency to oversimplification of the problems makes itself felt in his position, a tendency that is all the more dubious as there were already before his time important studies (with which Linnaeus presumably was very familiar) of the epistemological and methodological questions involved. According to the prevailing opinion, Linnaeus was the "father" of systematic classification in botany, and because of his achievement as its creator one makes allowances for the flaws of the binary nomenclature and the rather superficial classification principle. Only on the basis of the beginning Linnaeus made, prevailing opinion holds, was our factual knowledge increased and the methods proved.

In fact, however, in the history of science a continuum of a more profound treatment of the species problem and of the scientific method begins long before Linnaeus and extends in its tradition far beyond him. In this continuum, Linnaeus' work stands out almost as an alien element; only a few relevant points, such as the constancy of species, are also found in his work, but the detailed and precise work on epistemology and methodology carried out by earlier and contemporary scholars meets with no response in his work.

From the works preceding Linnaeus, I will single out for our purposes the significant foundational works of John Ray and Francis Willughby. They encompass the whole topic of eighteenth-century biology in its basic outlines and so provide us with the best exposition of the issue of biological species and races, which forms the underpinning of modern race theory. [fn]

Willughby, a zoologist, and Ray, a zoologist and botanist, dealt decisively with the problem of classification and the adequate description of a unit of life, the one (Willughby) primarily in practical work through his typology of species, the other (Ray) also in theoretical discourses.

The problem of species unity makes itself felt as a problem in the concrete difficulties in the proper differentiation of species. In the foreword to Willughby's ornithology, Ray justifies the descriptive method applied in this work, calling the reader's attention to the fact that the species are defined by complexes of traits whenever the usual scholastic practice of description by a single trait, the differentia specifica in the more concise sense of Aristotelian logic, seemed insufficient.

This statement already distinguishes between the scholastic system and the natural system in Kant's sense, though without giving it a name yet. In the classification according to scholastic logic the species is characterized through the identification of the specific (in the logical sense) trait distinguishing it from the genus proximum. By contrast, Ray has a real-ontological concept of species as it exists in nature; in view of this reality of a species, the scholastic system of distinguishing traits can fail.

The practical needs of a more concrete science lead to the emancipation from a method that formulates its rules according to the scholastic doctrines of genus proximum and differentia specifica: traditional logic is replaced by a method that follows closely the structure of its subject. Nature with its species itself becomes the guideline for the method of typology. In the subtitle of Willughby's later Historia Piscium, this idea is formulated in principle. There we read that in these four books fish in general will be discussed and that there will also be a description of all species, according to a method that follows the guidelines given by nature. The method here becomes the servant of nature and follows its lead.

In a somewhat later work on botany, Ray attempts to justify his classification of plants into trees and herbs, a classification that was new and unusual at that time. As he put it, according to the consensus of contemporary botanists, the objection will be raised that the notae charactetisticae of the genera and species should be based on the differences and similarities of blossoms and fruits, to which he replies that the traits of blossoms and fruits are very useful for defining subdivisions, but that the principal divisions must be guided by the total habitus.

The total habitus, or total constitution, which can be described only by a complex of traits, is thus introduced as the element guiding the definition of types; the natural unit as a real unit becomes almost tangible in this idea as opposed to the arbitrary system. The idea is summed up (decisively) in the statement, "Methodum intelligo Naturae convenientem, quae nec alienas species coniungit, nec cognatas separat." [I understand a method that agrees with nature, that neither joins alien species, nor separates cognate ones.]

What Ray has in mind is a system adapted to nature; he concedes almost contemptuously that over against this "natural" system, artificial ones can arbitrarily be established and every plant can be assigned a place in them, but they contribute nothing to our knowledge of real divisions in nature.

FN. The work of Willughby and Ray, especially Ray's, is largely ignored nowadays. For the eighteenth century, it was of the utmost significance. Even Linnaeus refers to it explicitly, though he makes no use of the possibilities it offers for the formulation of theories. In the "Observationes" of the second edition of System Naturae, concerning the animal kingdom, Linnaeus writes, "Paucissimi vero sunt, qui Zoologiam in Genera et Species secundum leges Systematicas redigere tentarunt, si Willughbeium et Rajum excipiamus" [With the exception of Willughby and Ray, very few indeed have tried to reduce zoology to genera and species in accord with systematic laws] (p. 75).

Even during the time of Kant, Ray is cited as the authority for the development of the biological concept of species. Girtanner writes, "Several famous naturalists have already tried to define the species according to the laws of reproduction, or have at least acknowledged the correctness of the principle that animals who together beget fertile young belong to one and the same physical species. For example, Rai, Frisch, and Büffon" (Girtanner, Über das Kantische Prinzip fur die Naturgeschichte: Ein Versuch, diese Wissenschaft philosophisch zu behandeln [Göttingen, 1796], 4). Back to Text

Chapter 1,
Exposition of the Species Problem
§2. The Natural Method (Ray),
pp 31-34.