A Reappraisal of Charles Darwin’s Engagement with the Work of William Sharp Macleay

  • Aaron Novick
Original Paper


Charles Darwin, in his species notebooks, engaged seriously with the quinarian system of William Sharp Macleay. Much of the attention given to this engagement has focused on Darwin’s attempt to explain, in a transmutationist framework, the intricate patterns that characterized the quinarian system. Here, I show that Darwin’s attempt to explain these quinarian patterns primarily occurred before he had read any work by Macleay. By the time Darwin began reading Macleay’s writings, he had already arrived at a skeptical view of the reality of these patterns. What most interested Darwin, as he read Macleay, was not the quinarian system itself. Rather, Darwin’s notes on his reading primarily concerned certain background principles animating Macleay’s work, in particular: (a) the non-existence of a saltus between human and animal minds, (b) the difficulty of establishing boundaries between species and varieties, and (c) Macleay’s method of variation. Darwin’s interest in the last of these left a mark on his discussion of taxonomic methodology in the Origin.


Charles Darwin Quinarian system William Sharp Macleay Human/animal distinction Species Varieties 


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The author thanks James Lennox, Jon Hodge, Aleta Quinn, Andrew Brower, and three anonymous reviewers for Journal of the History of Biology for helpful comments and discussion.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares that they have no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA

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