Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 6, Issue 2, pp 255–274 | Cite as

Representations of the Natural System in the Nineteenth century

  • Robert J. O'Hara


‘The Natural System’ is the abstract notion of the order in living diversity. The richness and complexity of this notion is revealed by the diversity of representations of the Natural System drawn by ornithologists in the Nineteenth Century. These representations varied in overall form from stars, to circles, to maps, to evolutionary trees and cross-sections through trees. They differed in their depiction of affinity, analogy, continuity, directionality, symmetry, reticulation and branching, evolution, and morphological convergence and divergence. Some representations were two-dimensional, and some were three-dimensional; n-dimensional representations were discussed but never illustrated. The study of diagrammatic representations of the Natural System is made difficult by the frequent failure of authors to discuss them in their texts, and by the consequent problem of distinguishing features which carried meaning from arbitrary features and printing conventions which did not. Many of the systematics controversies of the last thirty years have their roots in the conceptual problems which surrounded the Natural System in the late 1800s, problems which were left unresolved when interest in higher-level systematics declined at the turn of this century.

Key Words

Classification diagrams evolution history natural history natural system ornithology phylogeny representation systematics taxonomy 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert J. O'Hara
    • 1
  1. 1.Division of BirdsNational Museum of Natural History Smithsonian InstitutionWashingtonUSA

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