Thursday, June 08, 2006


Cuvier, speaking of how a biologist can deduce the nature of the animal from the slightest clues:

But I doubt if any one would have divined, if untaught by observation, that all ruminants have the foot cleft, and that they alone have it. I doubt if any one would have divined that there are frontal horns only in this class: that those among them which have sharp canines for the most part lack horns.

However, since these relations are constant, they must have some sufficient cause; but since we are ignorant of it, we must make good the defect of the theory by means of observation: it enables us to establish empirical laws, which become almost as certain as rational laws, when they rest on sufficiently repeated observations; so that now, whoso sees merely the print of a cleft foot may conclude that the animal which left this impression ruminated, and this conclusion is as certain as any other in physics or morals. This footprint alone, then, yields to him who observes it, the form of the teeth, the form of the jaws, the form of the vertebræ, the form of all the bones of the legs, of the thighs, of the shoulders, and of the pelvis of the animal which has passed by: it is a surer mark than all those of Zadig.

[Quoted in T. H. Huxley, An Introduction to the Classification of Animals (1869)]

The allusion in the last sentence is to Voltaire's delightful little work, Zadig, a favorite of semioticians and people interested in the pre-history of detective fiction. If you haven't read it, you should; Project Gutenberg has an English translation.

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