[Back to Electronic Resources on Ornithology]

Swainson's What?

Copyright Christopher Majka
all rights reserved. Reproduced from New Brunswick Naturalist

Just imagine that its a spring morning. The sun isn't up yet but you're out of bed pulling on your hiking boots. Time to take an early morning bird walk -- perhaps shake the dust off some of those bird songs in preparation for the Breeding Bird Surveys. Outside it's still cold -- bit of frost on the grass as you start out of the yard and to that patch of woods. Rub your hands together and breathe on them -- there, that feels better. A few Robins are bouncing on the lawns -- in the distance a group of crows is calling -- but wait; what's that? Ah, yes -- there's a familiar call -- no trouble recognizing that one -- the Swainson's Thrush -- always one of your favourites. That gentle warble; you hear it everywhere you go in New Brunswick forest's. Almost seems like the spirit of the woods itself. Funny though, Swainson's Thrush. Swainson who? How come its his thrush?

Perhaps some of you have spent a winter holiday in southern Florida. Driving to the beach in the morning you happen to look up through the windshield and a large buteo shape soars over the car. Putting on the brakes you swerve to side of the road. Grappling for your binoculars under the seat you leap out and, focusing, you notice the dark breast-band -- ah ha! -- a Swainson's Hawk. That's a new one! But wait a minute -- who's hawk? Swainson's Hawk?

Another trip to the south. It's a hot day in Georgia's Okeefenokee Swamp. You've got your hip waders on and are wading among the cypresses always mindful of the alligators. Suddenly a small bird darts out of the thicket and perches on a branch in front of you. Through the binoculars you can see the dark crown and the light stripe through the eye. Incredible! A Swainson's Warbler! Suddenly there's a noise and the bird flies giving an alarm call. You turn -- oh no! -- the alligator . . .

Yes Swainson -- William Swainson to whit -- English naturalist, author and illustrator. I am inaugurating the first in what I hope will be an intermittent series of articles about the history of science and some of the famous men who's names we perhaps know but about whom we might know little. I am impelled to this task by an article called, William Swainson: naturalist, author and illustrator by David M. Knight published in Archives of Natural History (1986) 13(3): 275-290 and delivered by the author as the 1984 Ramsbottom Lecture.

William Swainson was born in 1789 in Liverpool and after departing in 1807 for a career in the army in Malta and Sicily he retired in 1815 at half pay to pursue his real interest -- natural history. He promptly left for Brazil on an expedition where he collected plants and animals and then returned to become a Fellow of the Royal Society. Swainson was a talented illustrator and draughtsman and a passionate believer that the art of zoological illustration ought to be as high and noble one as any other. In his introduction to the illustrations of Exotic Conchology (1821-22) he presented his 'manifesto' which stated in part:

"while the perfection to which the Fine Arts have attained in this country, is so great, as to be obvious in the embellishments of the minor pamphlets which daily issue from the press, the delineations of Zoological subjects in general remain uninfluenced by this universal improvement; and with few exceptions, present lamentable deficiencies in design, drawing, perspective and the most common principles of light and shade; any one of which would not be tolerated, even in the frontispiece to the most humble of our periodical publications".
He scorned the custom of merely copying museum specimens in minute detail and he likewise stated that people forget:
"that, in Birds particularly, every family has a decided peculiarity of form and habit, and that all originally possessed the gracefulness of life and action, which does not remain with the preserved skin; and, that, to delineate a shell with a proper degree of accuracy, as complete a knowledge of design, colouring, and chiaro-scuro, is requisite, as in painting a cabinet picture of still life."
Swainson made his mark on the world of zoological illustration with a number of publications. These included Zoological Illustrations, Exotic Chonchology, The Geography and Classification of Animals, Birds of Western Africa, Flycatchers, Animals in Menangeries, Taxidermy, A Treatise on Malacology, or Shells and Shellfish, The Natural History and Classification of Quadrupeds, and, the volume which most contributed to his reputation as an illustrator in North America, Fauna Boreali-Americana. It was on this basis that Nuttall's Catharus ustulatus became known as Swainson's Thrush; Bonaparte named his new hawk Buteo swainsoni, Swainson's Hawk; and Audubon described, in his honour, Limnothlypis swainsonii, Swainson's Warbler. Audubon in fact tried to interest Swainson in helping him with his Ornithological Biography however Swainson refused because his name would not have appeared on the title page and their friendship subsequently cooled.

Now, thus far it might appear that Swainson was yet one other devoted, but otherwise quite typical and ordinary, figure on the great road of natural history, but far from it. Swainson was also one of the chief exponents of a rather bizarre dead-end offshoot of systematics and classification called the Quinary System. Never heard of it? Well neither have most people this century but back in the 1820's and 30's in England it was a issue much discussed. Remember that this was before the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 and that the idea of how animals and plants might be related was a topic much conjectured on and argued about. A certain W. S. MacLeay devised a peculiar circular symbolic system to explain both affinities and analogies between animals. He immediately won over fellow zoologists N. A. Vigors and William Swainson to his ideas and the three of them spent much of their lives trying to convince a skeptical world of the validity of their findings.

In a nutshell, the Quinary System sees all taxonomic relations -- of species within genera, of genera within Families, of Families within Orders, of Orders within Classes and of Classes within Phyla -- as based upon groups which did not have a linear arrangement (or a branching tree-type of relationship as taxonomists these days believe) but a circular arrangement in which the opposite extremes met. Further, each group was divided into three circles one of which represented the 'typical' members, the second the 'subtypical' members and the final one the 'aberrant' members. The aberrant circle in turn was divided into three smaller sub-circles encompassing three groups. These circles touched one another and the species were distributed around them with affinities expressed through the proximity of species on the circle and analogies through mirror image reflections on other circles. It was called the Quinary System because it saw all things as being arranged in fives and this belief in the primacy of numbers was adhered to with almost mystical fervor.

Sound complicated and strange? Well in all fairness to MacLeay and Swainson it was, in some respects, as good an idea as any other at this time when there was as yet no conception of a driving force behind any scheme of relationships. It was not until Darwin, and the idea of evolution, that a dynamic sense of taxonomy would start to be created. The following example is one of Swainson's illustrating the relationship of monkeys according to the Quinary system. The straight lines indicate 'analogies', that is, animals which are in some way representative of the same qualities although they are in separate circles.

Quinary Chart

A quick transformation of names and, lo and behold, we have the relationship of Orders within the Class of Vertebrates.

In truth, though, the Quinary System, although in some instances corresponding to intuition strained credulity in many others. For example, Knight (1986) says:

"The modern reader may not feel that the parallels are compelling, or be struck with the observation that long noses and small eyes go together in nature or in man, or agree (with Swainson) that nothing 'can be more perfect than the analogy between the Bengal tiger and the African zebra', both being striped and impossible to tame."
In any event, history was not kind to the Quinary System. While zoologists in the 1820's and 30's had at least to take MacLeay and Swainson's proposals seriously, by the 1840's there were few who even paid attention to them. When Origin of Species was published in 1859 all possibility of its validity disappeared. Swainson, disillusioned with the lack of acceptance of his ideas, frustrated at yet another failure to get a post in the British Museum and by the death of his wife, emigrated to New Zealand and was little heard of again. According to Knight (1986):
"An American visiting Australasia in the 1850's heard to his surprise that both MacLeay and Swainson were living there, and imagined that they had been exiled to the Antipodes 'for the great crime of burdening zoology with a false though much laboured theory which has thrown so much confusion into the subject of its classification and philosophical study'."
So the next time you hear a Swainson's Thrush singing in the woods perhaps you'll remember its namesake, William Swainson, and the peculiar legacy which he left the sciences of classification and taxonomy. We often think of science as a kind of linear progression moving forward but there are many peculiar twists and turns and many blind alleys and dead-ends on the path of knowledge.

D. Knight (1986) Ordering the World: A History of Classifying Man. Burnett Books. London. 215 pp.

[Back to Electronic Resources on Ornithology]