17 March 2008

The Overzealous Dr. Donisthorpe

On this date in 1870, Horace Donisthorpe was born in England.

Donisthorpe is hardly a household name these days, and it is perhaps kinder to his memory that this remains the case, because outside of the very small world of ant researchers (myrmecologists), he is remembered mostly for what he did wrong, and just as this sort of narrow view has led to sad legacies such as "Lamarckism" (more on Lamarck at a later date), one cannot imagine that Donisthorpism would be a positive thing at all.

Horace did his share of good for the study of ants and beetles, and that should not be forgotten. He discovered six new species, including a European rove beetle (Leptacinus intermedius). Unfortunately, he also "discovered" no fewer than twenty-four other species which were not species at all, but redescriptions of already described species. To name and describe a species is a legacy, but to have that description revoked is worse than nothing. It makes the legacy no more than a taxonomic dead end, a complication, a mistake, marked with an asterisk for all the history of science afterward. Twenty four of these is no mean feat, and no small error.

Still, there are worse ways to spend a personal fortune, and he did advance his fields with the discoveries he did make. But at no point can I imagine the term "Donisthorpian" to be accepted gratefully by any scientist I know.

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