Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 49, Issue 1, pp 95–133 | Cite as

On the Origins of the Quinarian System of Classification

  • Aaron NovickEmail author


William Sharp Macleay developed the quinarian system of classification in his Horæ Entomologicæ, published in two parts in 1819 and 1821. For two decades, the quinarian system was widely discussed in Britain and influenced such naturalists as Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, and Thomas Huxley. This paper offers the first detailed account of Macleay’s development of the quinarian system. Macleay developed his system under the shaping influence of two pressures: (1) the insistence by followers of Linnaeus on developing artificial systems at the expense of the natural system and (2) the apparent tension between the continuity of organic nature and the failure of linear classification schemes (which continuity seemed to require). Against what he perceived as dogmatic indolence on the part of the Linnaeans, Macleay developed a philosophy of science in which hypotheses that exceeded the available evidence should be proposed and subjected to severe tests. He also developed a novel comparative anatomical methodology, the method of variation, to aid in his search for the natural system. Using this method, he developed an intricate system that showed how organic nature could be continuous without being linear. A failure to appreciate these facets of Macleay’s thought has led to several misunderstandings of him and his work, most notably that he was an idealist. These misunderstandings are here rebutted.


Quinarian system William Sharp MacLeay Systematics Continuity Idealism 


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I owe thanks to Michal De-Medonsa for beautifully recreating Macleay’s original figures␣and to James Lennox, Aleta Quinn, Elay Shech, Nora Boyd, David Colaço, Laura Novick, and two anonymous reviewers for Journal of the History of Biology for comments on drafts.

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Conflict of interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.History and Philosophy of Science DepartmentUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA

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