The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Taxonomy in the 18th Century


Paper collection of 12 shells from the 18th century.

 In the 18th century, Europe was experiencing a vast influx of new information from overseas explorations, an example being the number of known flora species, "in 1600 there were around 6 thousand known plant species but by 1700, at the dawn of the great age of exploration, it had doubled to 12 thousand" (Huxley, 72). This new information ranged from exotic new lands to strange new species of flora and fauna. As a result several people in Europe wanted to organize and classify all the new species being brought back from overseas, which would eventually set the ground works for the theory of evolution. This practice or want to organize living things originated in ancient times, specifically with the ancient Greeks, mainly Aristotle. Several people believed that by classifying and grouping living species humans could learn more about themselves, people thought that "if they could use observation and classification to unravel the mysteries of the natural world, the knowledge and the methods used to archive it could also be applied to the human and economic worlds for the benefit of mankind" (Huxley, 79). This desire for a universal classification system or taxonomy caused a great debate. There were generally two sides in this debate, natural versus artificial classification. Eventually systems of classification emerged leaving people to decide between them, two of the main systems of classification at the time were created and defined by their creators, Carl Linnaeus and Georges Buffon.


Georges-Louis Leclerc De Buffon

 Georges Buffon's Ideals

Georges Buffon was a French naturalist who entered the taxonomy debate during the 18th century. He was born in 1707 and died in 1788. He published 36 volumes of his book “Historie Naturelle.” Generally, Buffon believed in a constant and quick change in nature, which prompted him to favor description, rather than taxonomy. Buffon believed that taxonomy had the potential to create similarities that don’t exist amongst different species, something he disagreed with and wanted to avoid, "most classifications, he argued...were the product of the human mind and did not take into account the continuous variation shown by living things" (Huxley, 77). Buffon wanted natural history and classification systems to be independent from God and mathematics; he wanted to solely focus on the plants, their descriptions, and their history. This led him to promote and believe in classification and organization based on just descriptions. Finally, pertaining to naming species Buffon believed they should go by their proper and lengthy descriptive polynomials. 


Carl Linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus's Ideals

Carl Linnaeus was a Swedish physician who also was a forefront thinker regarding the debate of taxonomy. He designed a hierarchical system of classification, which he thought would help simplistically and logically group all living species. Linnaeus published "Systema Naturae" in 1735. He laid out his large divisions, the animal kingdom, the plant kingdom, and the mineral kingdom and then further divided in each by phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, grouping specimens by similar characteristics within his book. Linnaeus was also known for the creation of the binomial system, a two-word Latin name that was extremely simple. This new naming system was not a description of the species but just a name, "Linnaeus's two word name divorced the need to put a label on an organism from the need to describe it" (Huxley, 78). Though Linnaeus created this naming system it was not widely used or accepted until around the late 1760's, some thirty years later. Interestingly, Linnaeus’s first printing of "Systema Naturae" did not include illustrations. This was strange at the time because among some of the most noted natural history collections included images, allowing the readers to not only learn about the plant but also gain the potential to recognize it in nature. Similar to Bruce, Linnaeus had an interesting reception in Europe, but particularly in Britain. Linnaeus's system was slow to catch on and gain praise in Britain while in other European countries it was catching like wild fire. One noteworthy aristocrat "expressed his dissatisfaction with elements of Linnaeus's system, describing it as a poor mix of natural and artificial systems" (Huxley, 78). 

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Isolated image of flora. 

 Thoughts on Exhibiting Illustrations 

Another largely relevant aspect of the debate over taxonomy in the 28th century was the way in which illustrations or engravings were to be presented. The biggest feature that came into question was whether, when drawing a subject, to include the background or environment it was seen in or to just focus on the subject. The argument behind leaving the background out of an engraving was that it allowed the viewer to interpret and compare just the subject to others. In other words, the background would not influence the viewer in any possible way; the lack of scenery created a selective sight for the observer. Another differentiating focus of engravings was whether or not to alter the way the subject is viewed for a more ornate image. Bruce in his Travels states that he never altered the image of a subject so that it was accurately represented, "none of the parts, however trifling and small, being neglected in the representation, and none of them supposed or placed there out of order, for ornament, or any other cause whatever: a rule which I would have the reader be persuaded is invariably observed in every article represented in this collection" (Bruce, vol. 6, 43). Furthermore, people also examined whether it was best to include only certain parts of a subject rather than the subject as a whole. Bruce switches off including the entire subjects or just parts throughout his appendix; deciding, with what seems to be, no particular reason.


James Bruce

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Bruce's illustration of the Hyena

James Bruce's Stance

James Bruce was a close friend and supporter of Georges Buffon. Due to this fact he sided with Buffon with regards to the debate on taxonomy. Within his 6th volume of Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile Bruce only describes specimen he comes across on his journey. He seems to have no particular order or grouping the species he documents and illustrates except for "of plants, shrubs, and trees", "of quadrupeds", "of birds", and "maps" (Bruce, vol. 6, v-viii). In regards to Bruce's illustrations of the species in these groups, Bruce consistently excludes backgrounds, a common practice of Buffon. Furthermore, Bruce shifts between illustrating the subject at hand as a whole or just certain parts or aspects of it. Lastly, one inconsistency Bruce has pertaining to Buffon's ideals is the manner in which species are named within the volume. Rather than use the long and descriptive polynomial names, Bruce simply states the species' common names, for example "Papyrus" underneath the image. Bruce discusses the importance of names throughout his 6th volume. One of the biggest discussions Bruce has on names occurs within his description of the hyena.

"The hyena is known by two names in the east, Deeb and Dubbah. His proper name is Dubbah, and this is the name he goes by among the best Arahian naturalists... and here the confusion begins, for though Dubbah is the properly a hyena, Dabbu is a species of monkey; and though Deeb is likewise a hyena, the same word signafies a jackal, and a jackal being by naturalists called a wolf, Deeb is understood to be a wolf also...Dubb is a bear, so here is another confusion, and the bear is take for the hyena, because Dubb, or Dubbah, seems to be the same word " (Bruce, vol. 6, 134)


As you can tell from the above quote, Bruce thought that names were extremely important because it could mean the difference between a monkey, a bear, and a hyena. This difference was particularly important because if the name is translated wrong or understood differently, people might believe bears are native to Africa or that a group of travelers were attacked by monkeys. Bruce then goes on to discuss Georges Buffon's description of a hyena, stating that it "is an elegant and good one" (Bruce, vol. 6, 135). This direct reference to Buffon not only informs the reader of Bruce's stance within the argument on taxonomy, but also refers them to Buffon’s description and book. Overall, Bruce, though not the best natural historian, attempted to enhance the knowledge being acquired in Europe regarding taxonomy and natural history. While also increasing support for Buffon in the dispute regarding how to properly classify and organize species from the natural world. 



Huxley, Robert. "Challenging the Dogma: Classifying and Describing the Natural World." and “Natural History Collectors and their Collections: ‘Simpling Macaronis’ and Instruments of Empire.” In Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth-Century, 70-91. 2003.

Bruce, James. 1791. Travels to discover the source of the nile: In the years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773. Dublin: Printed by Zachariah Johnson, for P. Wogan, L. White, P. Byrne, W. Porter, W. Sleater, J. Jones, J. Moore, B. Dornin, C. Lewis, W. Jones, G. Draper, J. Milliken, and R. White.

Natural History through the Ages
Taxonomy in the 18th Century