Posted by: Rob Viens | December 15, 2012

Darwin’s Nemesis and the Naming of Species

Three more days passed as the Beagle continued sailing to southern latitudes and approached the first day of summer.  Darwin was still relatively quiet as they neared Tierra del Fuego:

“In the evening the wind veered round & became fair: we are however some leagues further North than we were two days ago—so much for those unlucky South Westers.” (Dec 13)

“Light variable wind, generally against us.” (Dec 14)

“Very foggy.— every thing conspires to make our passage long. This evening the low land South of the Sts of Magellan was just visible from the deck.” (Dec 15)

As he traveled along the coast of South America, Darwin found himself following in the footsteps of another naturalist who had recently surveyed much of the same region that Darwin was now exploring. His name was Alcide Charles Victor Dessalines d’Orbigny, and to add insult to Darwin’s injury, he was French.

Alcide d’Orbigny as a young man (from Wikipedia Commons)

Alcide d'Orbigny

To a naturalist trying to make a name for himself, the worst thing that could happen to young Darwin (at least in a scientific sense) was to have someone else “discover” all the new species of South American plants and animals first.  The fact that d’Orbigny was just steps ahead of Darwin, made it even more difficult on the English naturalist (d’Orbigny’s voyage lasted from 1826 to 1833).  For all practical purposes, young Mister Darwin had himself a nemesis.

In a letter to John Henslow, written before leaving Montevideo, Darwin makes reference to his scientific rival and his fears that d’Orbigny had beaten him to all the “good stuff”:

“I must have one more growl, by ill luck the French government has sent one of its Collectors to the Rio Negro.—where he has been working for the last six month, & is now gone round the Horn.— So that I am very selfishly afraid he will get the cream of all the good things, before me.— As I have nobody to talk to about my luck & ill luck in collecting; I am determined to vent it all upon you.” (Correspondence to John Henslow, Oct 26-Nov 24, 1832)

So just who was this nemesis?

Alcide d’Orbigny was born just 7 years before Darwin in 1802 in France. As a young naturalist he studied with the great geologists and paleontologists of Paris, such as Georges Cuvier and Pierre Cordier. He quickly made a name for himself studying single celled marine protists called foraminifera. In fact, if you look up a list of foram species, you’ll find d’Orbigny’s name next to a significant number of them.

Foraminifera shells (from the University of California Museum of Paleontology)


In a way, this situation illustrates Darwin’s problem.  In traditional scientific nomenclature, the full name of a species is written with three parts.  The first two parts are the traditional binomial/Latinized name, which includes the Genus and Species of the organism (e.g., Homo sapiens).  In the scientific liturature, it is also tradition to list the person who discovered and/or was the first to describe a new species.  So, for example, there is a foraminifera species known as Turbinulina ammoniformis, d’Orbigny – first described by the French naturalist in 1826.  The name of the scientist, in effect, is immortalized along with the name of the species. (Not to mention, that scientist was typically the one to assign the species name.  And in taxonomy, the first published name has priority.)

So, not knowing the future, and that his immortality would not in question, Darwin was concerned the d’Orbigny would be the one to gain credit for discovering the many, as yet, undescribed species of South America.

After returning to France in 1833, after a seven year voyage for the Paris Museum of Natural History, d’Orbigny did, in fact, published an a nine-volume tome on his findings called La Relation du Voyage dans l’Amérique Méridionale pendant les annés 1826 à 1833. This book, which included beautify scientific drawings of specimens along with the descriptions, covered many of the 10,000 specimens the naturalist collected and brought back to Europe. Take a look (in French) at some of the volumes of d’Orbigny’s work online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Continuing his interest in marine life d’Orbigny was very interested in bryozoans (see Patiently Waiting with Cellepora), ultimately creating a legacy in this particular field of study.  He published several papers and books on the subject (one with about 1200 pages and 200 more plates). As part of those works, he was the first to describe 30% of known cyclostome bryazoan genera and another 4% of existing cheilostome bryozoan genera/subgenera. And there have been almost 200 years for scientists to describe the rest!

In the 1840’s D’Orbigny turned his focus to geology and became the word expert on French fossils (publishing a book an this as will describing close to 18,000 different fossil species).

In the end, the two naturalists went on to respect one another. Darwin had strong praise for d’Orbigny and his South American book, and the French naturalist named some species after Darwin – the most famous of which was the Darwin’s Rhea. Alclide d’Orbigny died in 1857 – two years before Darwin published Origin of Species. I’m sure d’Orbigny would have found the book a fascinating read, however, it is likely that, like his mentor Cuvier, d’Orbigny would not have a agreed with it.  He was a major follower of the idea that the history of life consisted of a series of creations, each one followed sometime later by a major extinction of life.   Though given enough time and evidence, who knows … maybe he would have come to agree with Darwin. (RJV)


  1. […] who had traveled through the area a few months before, had already described the species (see Darwin’s Nemesis and the Naming of Species).  So naming rights, and the immortality that goes along with it, went to him (the full species […]

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