THE PLATYPUS AND THE MERMAID and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination by Harriet Ritvo

THE PLATYPUS AND THE MERMAID and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination

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KIRKUS REVIEW

This wide-ranging study of the ""heroic age of scientific classification"" attempts--with only partial success--to place the taxonomic advances and prejudices of 18th- and 19th-century England in a broader cultural context. MIT historian Ritvo (The Animal Estate, 1987) first analyzes the politics and ""broader allegiances"" that clouded the objectivity of zoologists who embraced the gargantuan task of ordering the biological world, even as British imperialism was rapidly expanding their knowledge of that world. The author exhaustively details the unprofessional behavior scientists resorted to for personal gain (such as needlessly inventing new species and naming them after their employers). Then she expands her definition of taxonomy to include the informal classification of animals by amateur naturalists, groups with specialized relationships to animals (like farmers, breeders, hunters, and pet owners), and the general meat-eating public. Ritvo persuasively argues that ""each of the ways . . . people imagined, discussed, and treated animals inevitably implied some taxonomic structure."" Her analysis of how British sportsmen classified wild animals as game or vermin points to a more fundamental and still prevalent assumption that nature exists solely for human entertainment. Similarly, her analysis of the conflicts between hunters, farmers, and pet owners over the proper role of wild animals describes a cultural battle yet raging. Too often, though, Ritvo shies away from social analysis with a sense of propriety rivaling that of her Victorian subjects. Her introduction notes that ""worries about the concupiscence of human females structured the theory and practice of animal breeding""; in the text these worries are mentioned only briefly, and Victorian attitudes about female sexuality are dodged entirely. This hit-and-miss social commentary, combined with a penchant for inflated academic language (allayed only slightly by period cartoons), sabotages Ritvo's goal of illuminating the cultural ramifications of Enlightenment zoology.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1997
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.