Why did Darwin say "the misfortune to undertake"?

"Every naturalist who has had the misfortune to undertake the description of a group of highly varying organisms, has encountered cases (I speak after experience) precisely like that of man; and if of a cautious disposition, he will end by uniting all the forms which graduate into each other, under a single species; for he will say to himself that he has no right to give names to objects which he cannot define."

One reason, is that he was challenged with a difficult task.

Another is that he is unhappy because he could not name more than one species and had to say they are all one species because they graduate into each other.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ This would perhaps be better suited the the English Language and Usage site. It's simply a literary device, a way of saying that he was faced with a difficult, frustrating task. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Oct 31 at 16:46
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is a question of literature, not biology. $\endgroup$ – Remi.b Oct 31 at 21:21

If you read the subsequent paragraph it is clear that he is speaking of the difficulty in drawing borders between species.

It is not possible to draw definitive species boundaries, especially if you follow species over time rather than classifying organisms with a snapshot in time: these issues come up time and time again on this Stack. Some examples:

How could humans have interbred with Neanderthals if we're a different species?

Usage of "lineage" over "species"

Transitivity of Species Definitions

Because all species descend from common ancestors, there is a time at which any two organisms shared an ancestor. For related organisms, you can recognize that shared history, emphasize the similarity and at some point group two subspecies together as one species, or you can focus on differences and separate them. Whichever you choose, someone can argue that the species should instead be separated or grouped.

Ultimately, the distinctions are based on somewhat arbitrary decisions, and counterexamples are abundant whichever rule you try to use (for example, a rule that organisms that have viable offspring should be considered species renders many examples that one would argue should be separate species, and examples of individuals that should be one species that are nonetheless not able to produce viable offspring).

It's not so much the misfortune of the task being difficult but rather of it being not possible to come to a definitive answer.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.