Of elephants and errors: naming and identity in Linnaean taxonomy


What is it to make an error in the identification of a named taxonomic group? In this article we argue that the conditions for being in error about the identity of taxonomic groups through their names have a history, and that the possibility of committing such errors is contingent on the regime of institutions and conventions governing taxonomy and nomenclature at any given point in time. More specifically, we claim that taxonomists today can be in error about the identity of taxonomic groups in a way that Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), who is routinely cited as the “founder” of modern taxonomy and nomenclature, simply could not be. Starting from a remarkable recent study into Linnaeus’s naming of Elephas maximus that led to the (putative) discovery of a (putative) nomenclatural error by him, we reconsider what it could mean to discover that Linnaeus misidentified a biological taxon in applying his taxon names. Through a further case study in Linnaean botany, we show that his practices of (re)applying names in taxonomic revisions reveal a take on determining “which taxon is which” that is strikingly different from that of contemporary taxonomists. Linnaeus, we argue, adopted a practice-based, hands-on concept of taxa as “nominal spaces” that could continue to represent the same taxon even if all its former members had been reallocated to other taxa.

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  1. 1.

    Here and elsewhere in this article, we differentiate between references to names of taxa and references to (concepts of) taxa by using quotation marks and italics, respectively.

  2. 2.

    Linnaeus later stated in his account of the King’s collection that this specimen “was the very same as the one delineated by Seba” (Linnaeus 1764a, p. 6). Curiously, a similar remark is missing in the entry for the elephant in the first edition of this catalogue, which appeared in Swedish and Latin in 1754 and only mentions a few elephant teeth in the King’s collection (cf. Linnaeus 1754, p. 11). That Linnaeus had heard of the preserved foetus shortly after its arrival in Stockholm is certain from a letter he sent from Uppsala to his friend Abraham Bäck in Stockholm on May 18, 1753: “I am delighted from the bottom of my heart that the little miniature elephant has safely arrived. If it cost a lot, it will taste well. He is surely as curious as a diamond” (Linnaeus to Bäck, 18 May 1753, The Linnaean Correspondence, L1584, URL = http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:alvin:portal:record-225072 accessed 21 Aug 2020; translations, if not indicated otherwise, are our own). Independent evidence that the specimen indeed came from Seba’s collection is provided by Boeseman (1970, p. 182) and Cappellini et al. (2014, Suppl. 2).

  3. 3.

    That is, unless the specimen that is selected as lectotype turns out not to have been a single specimen, but a mix of material from different specimens. We will ignore these and many other complexities of naming that are considered in great detail by the Code but are not pertinent to the cases we discuss.

  4. 4.

    Linnaeus’s reference states page 123, probably an error.

  5. 5.

    Further evidence has been acquired since Cappellini et al. published their study. Roscam Abbing (2016, p. 118) has uncovered the receipt of the sale of the skin and skeleton of the elephant to the Florentian museum where it was first displayed. The receipt clearly mentions “capitano Cornelio Vangroenpelt” as the former owner.

  6. 6.

    It is therefore quite likely that Linnaeus was fully aware that the specimen was from Africa. It is interesting in this regard to observe that in 1754 Linnaeus used the name Elephas indicus (Linnaeus 1754, p. 11), referring to the description from John Ray and a set of teeth from an Indian elephant in the King’s collections. It is possible that Linnaeus changed the specific epithet to maximus in Systema naturae (1758) after he had seen the Seba specimen and had heard (or read) that it came from Africa. Systema naturae includes additional references to descriptions of what clearly were African elephants which may also have motivated Linnaeus to change the name. Another possibility, mentioned by Richard Lydekker (1916), is that when Linnaeus changed the name he had specimens of a Bengal subspecies of the Asian elephant in mind, which had been imported to Sri Lanka. The males of this subspecies have large tusks, as opposed to the “insignificant” tusks of elephants that were native to Sri Lanka (p. 82).

  7. 7.

    Some of these might have been Asian elephants that had been brought to Africa, but likely not all of them. Gessner, who provided the most extended description, noted important differences in size and form and hinted at the existence of two “species” (Gessner 1551, p. 411: duo eorum genera sunt). The name change Linnaeus introduced in 1758, from E. indicus to E. maximus, was perhaps also due to his reading of Gessner, who quoted Pliny as stating that the elephant “is the largest terrestrial animal” (Gessner 1551, p. 412: Terrestrium (inquit Plinius) maximum animal est elephas). In Systema naturae, Linnaeus wrote that the elepant is the “largest quadruped” (Linnaeus 1758, p. 33: Maximum quadrupes).

  8. 8.

    Osborn (1942, vol. ii, p. 1323). The reason why Osborn refers to his impression about Linnaeus’s type as a “technical opinion” is that he understood full well that Linnaeus did not actually designate types, in the modern sense, as anchors for names. In a footnote on the same page, he adds: “In this early stage of zoology no one dreamed of selecting any particular specimen and designating it as the type” (Osborn 1942, vol. ii, p. 1323, n. 1).

  9. 9.

    Johan Frederik Gronovius to Linnaeus, Dec 12, 1743, The Linnaean Correspondence, L0518, URL = http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:alvin:portal:record-223445, accessed 23 Aug 2020: “Conspiciendus datur in hac urbe Elephas naso cornigero sive Rhinoceros, animal ferox et horrendum; sexus feminei est.”

  10. 10.

    Linnaeus’s second, two-horned species was probably based on a fake specimen of Rhinoceros unicornis; see Rookmaaker (2005, p. 369).

  11. 11.

    Carl Linnaeus, “Jumenta”, Linnaean manuscripts, GB-110/LM/LP/ZOO/2/1/1/5, f. 4v, Linnean Society of London, Library and Archives.

  12. 12.

    This is a reference to the title of Foucault (1974). Foucault’s otherwise perceptive analysis of the “classical” episteme in terms of two-place relationships between “words” and “things” misses the fact that the classificatory tableaus that Linnaeus and other eighteenth-century naturalists designed were constantly revised by moving elements around, and that the only stable relation in the process was the relation between names and classes, not names and objects classified (Müller-Wille 2015).

  13. 13.

    Carl Linnaeus, Corollarium Genera Plantarum, Leiden: Wishoff, 1737, Linnean Society of London, Library and Archives, call no. BL.49B, URL = http://linnean-online.org/120005/, image 59.

  14. 14.

    Carl Linnaeus, Corollarium Genera Plantarum, Leiden: Wishoff, 1737, Linnean Society of London, Library and Archives, call no. BL.49C, URL = http://linnean-online.org/120006/, image 23.

  15. 15.

    Carl Linnaeus, Hortus cliffortianus, Amsterdam: s. n., 1737, Linnean Society of London, Library and Archives, call no. BL.1186, URL = http://linnean-online.org/120153/, image 479; Carl Linnaeus, Corollarium Genera Plantarum, Leiden: Wishoff, 1737, Linnean Society of London, Library and Archives, call no. BL.49B, URL = http://linnean-online.org/120005/, image 58.

  16. 16.

    Carl Linnaeus, “Species plantarum”, Linnean Society of London, Library and Archives, Linnaean manuscripts, GB-110/LM/LP/BOT/3/4/1, URL = http://linnean-online.org/61340/, image 805.

  17. 17.

    Linnaeus (1753, p. 630). The first edition of Species plantarum was the first work in which Linnaeus consistently applied “trivial names” (binomials) to each species. The trivial names were added in the margin, and did not otherwise affect Linnaeus’s diagnostic descriptions and synonymies, which can easily be traced to the earlier works and manuscripts mentioned above.

  18. 18.

    Carl Linnaeus, Systema naturae, 6th ed., Stockholm: Kiesewetter, 1748, Linnean Society of London, Library and Archives, call no. BL.10, URL = http://linnean-online.org/119963/, image 240.

  19. 19.

    That Linnaeus, in his taxonomic thinking, was influenced by Aristotelian or scholastic philosophy is an idea that goes back to Julius Sachs’ History of Botany (1875), and was especially popularized by Ernst Mayr. For a critique of this idea, see Winsor (2006). Note that we do not take a stance on this question in this paper. As explained above, our analysis applies to the level of “metaphysics of action”, even if it may very well help, as indicated, to make sense of some of the overt, and often confusing, metaphysical statements Linnaeus made.

  20. 20.

    The ICZN also mentions a third notion, the zoological taxon, which is defined as “A natural taxon of animals (which may, or may not, have had a name applied to it).” Interestingly, this notion does not appear in the actual text of the Code, but leads a quiet life in the Glossary.

  21. 21.

    Adding to the puzzlement about the notion of nominal taxa is the claim (made in the Glossary of the ICZN) that nominal taxa below the family level are “based on a name-bearing type”. However, the idea of “basing” a nominal taxon on a particular taxon member is at odds with the definition of a nominal taxon as not having anything to do with taxon members, as is suggested by the distinction between nominal and taxonomic taxa.

  22. 22.

    For instance, the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants speaks of “types of names of taxa” (ICN 2018, Art. 7.1). Also see Witteveen (2015, p. 577) for more on the nature of this relation between names, name-bearers, and referents.

  23. 23.

    The complex histories of the formation of the nomenclatural codes and their incorporation of the type method need not concern us here. For detailed studies see Daston (2004), Dayrat (2010), McOuat (1996), Nicolson (1991) and Witteveen (2016).


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We thank the audience of the Descartes Centre Colloquium in Utrecht for feedback on an earlier version of this article. We gratefully acknowledge financial support from the Dutch Research Council (NWO; Grant Number 275-20-060), which allowed us to work on the manuscript during a visiting stay of JW at Egenis, The Centre for the Study of Life Sciences at the University of Exeter. Finally, we would like to thank Isabelle Charmantier and Andrea Deneau from the Linnean Society of London for providing high quality images for reproduction.

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Witteveen, J., Müller-Wille, S. Of elephants and errors: naming and identity in Linnaean taxonomy. HPLS 42, 43 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40656-020-00340-z

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  • Taxonomy
  • Nomenclature
  • Classification
  • Linnaeus
  • Error
  • Identity