Nautilus

Why Do Taxonomists Write the Meanest Obituaries?

Constantine Rafinesque had only been dead a few months when Asa Gray sat down to eulogize him for the American Journal of Science. The year was 1841, and Gray, soon to join both the American Academy and the Harvard faculty, was well on his way to becoming the most respected botanist of his generation. Grayia, a new genus of desert shrub, had just been named in his honor.

Rafinesque, on the other hand, was persona non grata. Described by peers as a “literary madman,” the Turkish-born polymath had died of cancer the previous fall. Among the many works he left behind were rambling discourses on zoology and geology; a catalog of Native American burial mounds; a new interpretation of the Hebrew Bible; a 5,400-line epic poem (with footnotes); and, last but not least, a lengthy series of studies on North American plants.

It was these last that had attracted Gray’s attention. That’s because scattered among Rafinesque’s botanical works were descriptions of over 6,000 new plant species, far more than any one person had managed to produce prior to that time—more, in fact, than anyone has produced since. It should have been an amazing accomplishment, and would have been, if only Rafinesque had been a decent botanist.

“Our task,” Gray began, “although necessary, as it appears to us, is not altogether pleasing ...”

While the professor wanted to do “full justice” to Rafinesque’s life, he felt “obliged, at the same time, to protest against all of his later and one of his earlier botanical works ... There can, we think, be but one opinion as to the consideration which is due to these new genera and species: They must be regarded as fictitious, and unworthy of the slightest notice.”

What can we say of his life? Nothing.

Through a lifetime of what historians would call a “nervous and appalling industry,” Rafinesque had somehow managed to produce thousands of pages of the worst work the field had ever seen. Full of errors and oversights, punctuated only by the occasional tirade, Rafinesque’s papers were case studies in

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