Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 33, Issue 1, pp 27–70 | Cite as

Building on Bedrock: William Steel Creighton and the Reformation of Ant Systematics, 1925–1970

  • Joshua Buhs


Ideas about the natural world are intertwined with the personalities, practices, and the workplaces of scientists. The relationships between these categories are explored in the life of the taxonomist William Steel Creighton. Creighton studied taxonomy under William Morton Wheeler at Harvard University. He took the rules he learned from Wheeler out of the museum and into the field. In testing the rules against a new situation, Creighton found them wanting. He sought a new set of taxonomic principles, one he eventually found in Ernst Mayr's Systematics and the Origin of Species. Mayr's ideas tied together a number of themes running through Creighton's life: the need for a revised taxonomy, the emphasis on fieldwork, and the search for a new power center for ant taxonomy after Wheeler died. Creighton's adoption of Mayr's ideas as part of his professional identity also had very real implications for his career path: field studies required long and intensive studies, and Creighton would always be a slow worker. His method of taxonomy contrasted sharply not only with Wheeler's but also with two of his younger colleagues, William L. Brown and E. O. Wilson, who took over Wheeler's spot at Harvard in 1950. The disputes between these men over ant taxonomy involved, in addition to questions of technical interest, questions about where and how best to do taxonomy and who could speak withthe most authority. Creighton's story reveals how these questions are interrelated. The story also reveals the importance of Mayr's book for changes occurring in taxonomy in the middle of the twentieth century.

ants E. O. Wilson Ernst Mayr systematics Systematics and the Origin of Species taxonomy William L. Brown William Morton Wheeler William Steel Creighton 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joshua Buhs
    • 1
  1. 1.History and Sociology of Science DepartmentUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaU.S.A.

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