Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Most General Fault of the A. O. U. Check-List

Mark Twain thought it would be a really cool idea to have a newspaper called The Back Number, composed entirely of old newspaper articles. Like Twain, I have a magpie mind, and so I completely agree.

Recent events have had me reading articles from The Auk, the publication of the American Ornithologists' Union, circa 1900. Just listen to Elliott Coues wax decorously indignant about the A.O.U. Check-List:
This is a serious matter which I have hitherto refrained from bringing up, partly on account of its hopelessness, in the present arrangement and numbering of the species, partly because it is to some extent a question of ornithological expertness regarding which opinions may reason[a]bly differ. But now, having occasion to retraverse the whole ground of North American ornithology, in the preparation of the Fifth Edition of my 'Key,' the blemish I shall point out obtrudes itself continually upon my attention; I cannot longer maintain the reticence I have hitherto preserved without seeming to condone the impropriety by tacit acquiescence; and I desire to put myself upon record in the matter, lest my silence be imputed to unrighteousness. This is the first general protest I make public on certain subjects concerning which I was often found in a more or less respectable minority of one or two, when various questions were put to vote for the official decision of the Committee over which I had for so many years the honor to preside.
Yes, that's his preamble right there. He hasn't yet actually said what's wrong with the A.O.U. Check-List (it will turn out to be that the order in which orders and families are listed is inconsistent with the order in which genera and species are listed).

Notice the language of speech and reticence, of repose and assault. Coues isn't writing this article because he wants to; he's writing it because he has to. The inconsistency in the Check-List has intruded on his quiet repose and forced his hand. Had the Check-List's inconsistency not "obtrude[d] itself ... upon [his] attention," Coues might have gone on quietly, as he always hoped to do, but the obtrusion makes his tact into "tacit acquiescence," altering the meaning of silence; indeed, concerning a problem so glaring, silence itself is speech.

Thus as Coues represents it, his complaint is not uncivil, tactless, improper, or unrighteous; rather, it is the only way he can avoid being those things.

And, clearly, it is very important that he avoid being those things.

* * *

I have yet to pick up the medieval bestiary I requested from NRLF, but I will definitely let on if there is a roc in there, or any EXTREME MAMMALS.

Elliott Coues. "The Most General Fault of the A. O. U. Check-List." The Auk 14.2 (April 1897): 229-31. JSTOR. 18 May 2009. Web.

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