Darwin-L Message Log 1:104 (September 1993)

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.

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<1:104>From 71500.726@CompuServe.COM  Sun Sep 12 05:14:29 1993

Date: 12 Sep 93 06:13:36 EDT
From: "Alan P Peterson 71500.726@compuserve.com" <71500.726@CompuServe.COM>
To: <darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu>
Subject: An Historical question

I have a question about the tempo of alpha taxonomic activity, in the
late 18th and early 19th century.

If one looks at the rate of AVIAN taxonomic descriptions as a function
of time, it appears that there was a distinct lull in activity
between 1790 and 1815.  This lull is not apparent in fish, or mammals
(though the latter are getting a little sparse in number to detect a
"lull" if it is in fact there).  Descriptions of lichens (for example)
seemed to have actually peaked during this same period
(work mostly in Scandinavia).

My initial thought was that the period French Rev. War -- Napoleonic
Wars put a damper on natural history publishing in Europe.  Arguing
against this : the considerable support the French Revolutionary
government gave to natural history acitivities, the ongoing popular
natural history activites from the turn of the century through the
period of the Geoffroy-Cuvier debates, and the continued descriptions
of new fish (and mammals?).

The number of (currently valid) avian spp. described between
1780-1829 are below.

1780   1	1790 86	   1800 28	1810  21	1820  72
1781  19	1791  2	   1801 71	1811  49	1821  91
1782  20	1792 16	   1802 11	1812  20	1822  75
1783 127	1793  9	   1803  5	1813  10	1823 135
1784   7	1794  5	   1804  3	1814  12	1824  83
1785   2	1795  6	   1805  9	1815  33	1825  98
1786  47	1796  5	   1806  4	1816  56	1826  58
1787  14	1797  4	   1807  7	1817 119	1827 126
1788 134	1798 15	   1808 16	1818 120	1828  50
1789 238	1799  3	   1809 19	1819  65	1829  76

Most all of the 1801's are a single publ. of John Latham
Suppl.ind.orn. (it is actually an 1802 publication).
The 1811's are by and large Pallas' Zoogr.Rosso-Asiat.

If a plot is made with citation year on the y-axis, and any
arrangement of birds on the x-axis (taxonomic, random, alphabetic etc.)
a definite gap is apparent from 1790 to 1815.  The bottom of the "gap"
is somewhat artificial, due to the 1788-9 Syst. Nat. publ. by Gmelin
(mostly of Latham's birds !) producing a sharp "line" delimiting the
bottom of the period.

I've done similar plots for fish and mammals, but the "gap" is not
there. Most other taxa are either: 1.)unavailable to me in convenient
computer readable form, 2.) too sparse in number to reveal any "gap",
or 3.) not actively studied during this period.

I've looked at mammals, fish (well 59,000+ of them == 95%),
turbellarians, New World Dragaonfiles ... [Obviously these were chosen
for availability rather than applicability to the question.]

Why, I wonder, did bird descriptions languish until a sudden outpouring of
activity in 1815.  Much of the 1815 -1820 activity was due to Vieillot,
but he first published in 1801.  If the sudden change was the result,
say, of returning expeditions, I would expect the effect to show up in
mammals and fish as well.

If anyone has suggestions why there is a (real or apparent) lull in
avian alpha taxonomic activity from 1790 to 1815 I'd love to hear the

By brief introduction:
	Professionally I am a pathologist (and in that, am a practitioner
	of one of the most primitive forms of taxonomy practiced today).  By
	avocation I have a strong interest including systematics, taxonomic
	history, and bio-bibliography.  I know and work mostly with bird
	data, but have an extravagant and irregular head (to quote Sir
	Thomas Browne) attracted by many obscure interests.

Alan P. Peterson, M.D.       internet1:  71500.726@compuserve.com
POB 1999                     internet2:  alanpp@halcyon.com
Walla Walla, WA 99362, USA         fax:  509.525.1326
                                   vox:  509.527.0274
                                    or   509.529.1152

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