10 OCTOBER 1981, Page 24

Making Lists

Hugh LawsonTancred

Ordering the World: A History of Classifying Man David Knight (Burnett Books pp. 215, £7.95) To what extent do the phenomena of the extended world in which we live form a rationally classifiable whole? Is there any way other than mere convenience whereby we can prefer one system of classification to another? How, if at all, should we attempt to fit ourselves into any such classifications? These are all questions to which, since the last century and especially since the work of Darwin, we feel we are in a position to give firm positive answers. But this was by no means always the case and in Ordering the World David Knight attempts to describe the evolution of scientific thought that took us from the great boost to all forms of universal systematics that came from the Renaissance obsession with man's domination of his environment to the eventual postulation by Darwin, Huxley, Macleay and others in the 19th century of a great natural process as a centrally unifying concept around which a definitive world-taxonomy could be constructed.

But Darwin's contribution, revolutionary as it was, is by no means without precedents in earlier thinking. The whole trend of taxonomics in the previous two centuries had been towards finding some key-concept or chain of concepts that would convert a classification of mere convenience into one that, in some way, reflected the hidden formula to the whole system that it described. The first major initiative in this direction had come from anatomy—bats look like birds and whales like fishes until you dissect them—but gradually scientists had realised that in a system that was truly to reflect the dynamic condition of the surrounding world the criterion of classification must essentially be one of origin or cause, and the whole trend in systematics from before Linnaeus to the time of Darwin could be seen as an attempt to define the causal chain of creation in theologically neutral terms.

Mr Knight chooses this subject, he tells us, because while the work of Darwin has supplanted that of Lamarck in a way that the work of Wagner has not supplanted that of Mozart, we can nonetheless, by studying the earlier systems in all their rich variety — and it is extremely rich — gain useful insights into the methodology of taxonomies or systematics.

This interesting claim raises a number of questions. It would be foolish to deny that there is a parallel between the dilemmas facing a contemporary sub-atomic physicist attempting to make his delineations and that facing the 18th-century botanist making his. The underlying heuristic question is the same for both of them in important respects: When I assign specimen A to group I and specimen B to group 2, am I merely making an arbitrary decision reflecting my own, possibly cultural, preference or does my distinction really reflect some objective division in my data? The issues of metaphysical subjectivism, in other words, which were most systematically treated in the critical philosophy of Kant, have survived the profound changes we have seen in our scientific perceptions and data alike. Do we, in ordering phenomena, even at a pre-scientific level, merely suit our own convenience or are we able thereby to reembody in our theories genuinely external features of our environment?

This is, of course, essentially an epistemological question: what more can human knowledge be than a set of working assumptions upon the basis of which prudential action is possible? In some of the areas where 18th and 19th-century taxonomists operated, the acts of classifying seem sufficiently far removed from the exigencies of daily life to be absolved from narrowly pragmatist solutions. But obviously in any putatively comprehensive system there must be a place for Man, and the assignment of this place seems significantly more vulnerable to dogmatic influence.

We post-Darwinians feel, as I say, that we know — in the sense of having adequate experimental albeit inferential evidence — what Man's relationship is to his zoological and therefore physical surroundings, but what Mr Knight is offering us is a journey back to a previous state of scientific philosophy where, for instance, men could be genuinely alarmed at the presentation of coherent evidence of their cousinship with apes. This is, if nothing else, a refreshing exercise in mental time travel. Unfortunately, what is lacking—and this perhaps indicates the authorship of a genuine scientist — is a sufficiently clear outline of the overall evolution of taxonomies from the Renaissance to Darwin and the nonspecialist reader is likely to encounter a certain degree of confusion as he works his way through the many different systems in the many different areas of enquiry that Mr Knight considers; nor is confusion diminished by a certain anecdotalism of style and argument which, although it has its sometimes effective charms, is disconcerting in sustained presentation of unfamiliar and recondite material.

To the question of the future of scientific systems, or indeed of the systemising instinct in all intellectual inquiry, the author shows his deference in an epilogue. It is, however, a central flaw of the book as a serious, scientific work that its subject, the history of systems, throws little light on that question. A layman interested in it should turn elsewhere. If, however, he wishes to immerse himself in a world where botanical catalogues are the occasion of controversy, and the series of the elements and the grouping of animal families are fuel for intense debate among some of the best minds in Europe, he will find Mr Knight a committed and agreeable guide.