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Darwin-L Message Log 6:13 (February 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<6:13>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Wed Feb  2 22:59:56 1994

Date: Thu, 03 Feb 1994 00:11:21 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: Changing mineralogical arrangements
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

Ken Jacobs asks the history of early systematic arrangements of minerals.
I know virtually nothing about this subject unfortunately, but I have one
conviction about it that I hope someone might be able to confirm.  If you
look at the arrangement of minerals in the first edition of Linnaeus's
_Systema Naturae_ (1731; available in facsimile) you will see that the
mineral column runs from "Nitrum" through other salts, then through the
"Sulphura" to the metals, culminating in copper, silver, and gold.  This
seems surely to be a chain of being arrangement with alchemical overtones,
yes?  All the other substances are "unripe gold" as the alchemists might
have said, and through ripening it is possible for them to ascend this
scale.  Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs recently published a wonderful book on
Isaac Newton's alchemical work called _The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role
of Alchemy in Newton's Thought_ (1991, Cambridge University Press), and I
for one had a whole new historical world opened to my eyes when I read it,
like Keats looking into Chapman's Homer.  I suspect many of the vitalistic
and alchemical ideas she discusses pervade the early literature of natural
history to a much greater extent that we suspect.  (Or at least than I would
have suspected myself.  I shouldn't presume to speak for the real historians
of science who know this material a lot better than I do.)  In support of
this assertion I offer a recent paper by Arthur Cain which suggests there
is certainly more to Linnaeus that meets the moderns systematist's eye:

  Cain, Arthur J.  1992.  Was Linnaeus a Rosicrucian?  _The Linnean_,
    8(3):23-44.

I also might mention that I chose the word "arrangement" above in my subject
header consciously, in place of "taxonomy" or "classification".  If what we
are looking at in the case of Linnaeus's mineral arrangement, for example,
is a chain of being, then the _grouping_ contains only a portion of the
information he is trying to convey.  He recognizes only three major _groups_
of minerals in his central column, but the _arrangement_ of these is not
arbitrary: salts come first, "Sulphura" come second, and the metals come last.
And also within each group the arrangement carries information: the metallic
group isn't just a box containing the various metal species, it is an
arrangement showing which ones are lowest and which are highest (least ripe
and most ripe, perhaps).

Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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