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The Taxonomy of Wonder

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Wonder and amazement at the natural world inspire many blog posts, projects, and even careers in science, but it’s rare that you’ll see wonder break through the soul-crushing passive voice of the scientific literature. It wasn’t always this way, of course. In Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750, historians of science Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park discuss the intellectual history of wonders in the exploration of natural phenomena before the Enlightenment:

As theorized by medieval and early modern intellectuals, wonder was a cognitive passion, as much about knowing as about feeling…The passion of wonder had a mixed reception among late medieval and Renaissance natural inquirers, scorned by some as a token of ignorance and praised by others, following Aristotle, as “the beginning of philosophy.” All, however, agreed that wonder was not simply a private emotional experience but rather, depending on context, a prelude to divine contemplation, a shaming admission of ignorance, a cowardly flight into fear of the unknown, or a plunge into energetic investigation…Since the Enlightenment, however, wonder has become a disreputable passion in workaday science, redolent of the popular, the amateurish, and the childish. Scientists now reserve expressions of wonder fo their personal memoirs, not their professional publications. They may acknowledge wonder as a motivation, but they no longer consider it part of doing science.

Mirabilis jalapa

Wonder, however, has a way of sneaking its way into the scientific record. Take Mirabilis jalapa, a plant from South America with bright, multicolored flowers. The etymology of its genus name is the Latin word for wonderful, amazing, miraculous, or remarkable. Embedded in the scientific name of the flower is the amazement of the taxonomist marveling at the colorful flowers, exclaiming “Oh! How wonderful to behold.”

At the species level there are more than 1000 plants and animals with the species designation mirabilis, from the nursery web spider Pisaura mirabilis to the longjaw mudsucker fish Gillichthys mirabilis to this crazy looking sea slug. Many of these species were named and identified in the mid 19th to early 20th century, when scientific reports were a little more florid than they are today and the remarkable nature of some of these creatures could be remarked on directly, though still scientifically detached. The identification of the mushroom species Boletus mirabilis for example, published in the journal Mycologia in 1912 states, “this remarkable species was found several times in the vicinity of Seattle on the ground in woods. It is one of the most difficult species to preserve, owing to its extremely juicy consistency.”

Other remarkable species get the mirabilis label after some more drawn out taxonomic confusion. In a letter to the Proceedings of the Linnean Society in 1861 (PDF), the Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch reported a most unusual plant in the desert of Southwestern Africa:

[T]he coast rises to a height of about 300 to 400 feet, forming a continuous plateau, extending over six miles inland, as flat as a table. This tabular elevation…[is] clothed with a vegetation which, though scanty, consists of plants of the highest interest; among them a dwarf tree was particularly remarkable, which, with a diameter of stem often of 4 feet, never rose higher above the surface than 1 foot, and which, through its entire duration, that not unfrequently might exceed a century, always retained the two woody leaves which it threw up at the time of germination, and besides these it never puts forth another. The entire plant looks like a round table, a foot high, projecting over the tolerably hard sandy soil; the two opposite leaves (often a fathom long by 2 to 2½ feet broad) extend on the soil to its margin, each of them split up into numerous ribbon-like segments. As I bring some specimens of this wonderful plant to Europe…it will suffice just now to append to the foregoing a short notice of it in the technical language.

At this point Welwitsch continues on to describe the plant’s characteristics entirely in Latin, including giving his suggested genus designation of Tumboa, after the word used by the local population to identify the plant. After it was realized that “tumbo” was a more general word for “plant,” rather than a specific word for this plant in the local language, the amazing specimen was renamed after Welwitsch (another taxonomic trend) and became Welwitschia mirabilis (h/t to one of the remarkable undergrads in my lab who introduced me to this species during the lab’s “plant of the week” discussion).

Welwitschia mirabilis

Proteus mirabilis

Many fewer microbes share the species name mirabilis than multicellular organisms, but one is—in my opinion—particularly remarkable. Proteus mirabilis is a swarming bacteria that can spread in waves over a petri dish and sometimes causes urinary tract infections. The genus was discovered in 1885 by Gustav Hauser during an analysis of the microbes living in a piece of rotting meat. Hauser named the bacteria Proteus after the shape-shifting god in Homer’s Odyssey because of its ability to differentiate into swarming and stationary cell types. Interestingly, the genus includes the miraculous P. mirabilis as well as the extremely similar but less remarkably named P. vulgaris.

When memorizing species names for biology class or working with model organisms in the lab we’re usually focusing on getting all the syllables in Caenorhabditis elegans rather than thinking about the elegance of nematodes (let alone the elegance of the hundreds of other species named C. elegans). Genus and species names tell a story about the identification and classification of organisms as scientists try to squeeze the messiness of nature into the organized drawers of natural history museums and online databases. These taxonomic stories can tell us about the ego and personality of the scientist, the place where the organism was found, or perhaps something about the magic of encountering a new organism.

Christina Agapakis About the Author: Christina Agapakis is a biological designer who blogs about biology, engineering, engineering biology, and biologically inspired engineering. Follow on Twitter @thisischristina.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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