Swainson's quinary taxonomy, 1835

Swainson's quinary taxonomy, 1835

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Caption: Swainson's quinary taxonomy. Lemur taxon quinary diagram from 'A treatise on the geography and classification of animals' (1835) by British naturalist and artist William Swainson (1789-1855). Swainson pioneered lithography in natural history, but is best remembered for his ill-fated Quinarian System of classification. In the 1830s he followed William MacLeay (1819) that the number five had biological resonance in the subdivision of groups. In a pre-Darwinian world such artifice perhaps seemed no more surprising than that vertebrate animals tend to have five digits. The system became elaborate, and though briefly popular it fell from fashion by the mid-1840s. Swainson and MacLeay were derided, and both left for Australia. One observer joked they had been exiled for the 'great crime of burdening zoology with a false though much laboured theory which has thrown so much confusion into the subject.

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