The Ox-Born Bee

Excursions into art and science

Month: June 2014

Icons of Loss: The Natural History Dioramas of Hiroshi Sugimoto


Sugimoto's Wapiti

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Wapiti, 1980. Gelatin-silver print, 19″ x 24″ (sheet).

 Unnatural Nature

There’s a lot to love about the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, but it’s hard to imagine an experience more distant from nature. Perched serenely atop a mountain that overlooks exclusive Brentwood more exclusive Bel Air, its sculpted panoramic views integrating city and surrounding mountains are deceptive. It’s just off the 405 freeway, that triumphant memorial to the auto-industry’s victory over nature which slices through the Santa Monica mountain range and divides natural habitats, most notably of the mountain lion. Accessible by futuristic Disney-style tram that slowly lifts visitors to a condor’s eye view, it’s a constructed haven from urban ecology and ecosystem alike. It’s a place where the garden tour docent claims proudly reiterates installation artist Robert Irwin’s staunch description of his garden as an art and not a botanical garden, and notes all the ways in which its “natural” features—ravine, river, flowers—were designed and displayed with tightly controlled aeshetics in mind: their river rocks hewn from the slopes of the eastern Sierra Nevada; their imported South American bougainvillea trellised on massive rebar columns.

So, too, with a recent special exhibition of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of American Natural History Museum wildlife dioramas. Hanging on the walls as part of an exhibit devoted to the history of photography, we’re asked to view Sugimoto’s photographs of the reconstructed habitats of wildlife through the lens of the camera lens, not as artifacts in the history of natural history.

But it’s curious to think about the role of nature in this unnatural place, and through the technological mediation of photography. Or, rather, through the photographs of an earlier medium for viewing nature, the diorama. What strikes me as especially odd about Sugimoto’s diorama photographs is that while they are commentaries on the weirdness of museums, invoking and exhibiting contradictions and strange loops in the history of museums and museum display, these contradictions can be productively repurposed in the service of nature: the very thing these images, and this museum, remind us that we are not part of.

Illusions of Life

Natural history is made from dead things. Collecting and preserving specimens caught—killed—in the field is the bread and butter of the museum display. Naturalists of the nineteenth century invented dioramas as a way to resurrect, not just the specimens themselves, but the ecological scenes from which they came “at a time when the average person could not travel to visit wild places far from home” 1. Before dioramas, such places were recreated in text, through the word-paintings of explorers like the eighteenth-century German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt, himself inspired by the Romantic visions of Goethe, awed readers with descriptions of natural wonders in the Americas, inspiring the likes of Charles Darwin in his Voyage of the Beagle (1839) and setting off an era of natural exploration. Natural history museums emerged to preserve, catalogue, and classify the specimens brought back from such voyages, forming the core of museum collections to this day. Museums also used them to recreate whole scenes from nature, inaugurating a new, visual way to encounter nature and educate a public tantalized by narratives of discovery.


Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1810. Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland at the foot of the Chimborazo Volcano.


Louis Daguerre

Sugimoto’s photographs belong to this tradition. It’s no coincidence that photography and the diorama emerged at the same moment: The French artist Louis Daguerre invented photography with his Daguerreotype, a process of fixing images onto silver plates through chemical treatment. Daguerre patented the diorama in 1822, and his first Daguerreotypes were of them. Daguerre’s early dioramas presented huge scenes painted on curtains and illuminated by clever methods in darkened theaters to produce a kind of “reality effect.” Later, he would arrange objects, and people, in the foreground of these scenes. Daguerre would photograph these scenes, which helped produce the illusion of depth where there was none: the backgrounds took on three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional image. The black and white image helped complete the illusion of reality and and atmospheric sense of ‘being there’ by playing up the contrasts in light and shadow. The strange lifelikeness of these scenes appealed to visitors who could not afford to travel to such real historical places, but I imagine they would also have appealed to those who had been there and wanted to resurrect their memory and feel again the sense of immersion and presence.

Daguerre, Holyrood Chapel

Daguerre, painting from the diorama installation, Ruins of Holyrood Chapel, 1824

Ruins of Hollyrood Chapel, black and white.

Ruins of Holyrood Chapel, black and white

The image above of Holyrood Chapel is a painting Daguerre made of the diorama. He may have achieved its lifelike lighting by looking at his painted screen first to see how the light and shadow played on it. The black and white version gives some sense of how a Daguerreotype may have reproduced the diorama to achieve the same illusion.

Early on, dioramas were meant to be photographed and painted. But pretty soon the diorama gained its own life as a means of staging lifelike habitat scenes for a viewing public, thanks to Carl Akely (1864-1926), naturalist, taxidermist, and dioramist of the American Natural History Museum in 1889 2. Akely resurrected Renaissance methods of painting on curved backgrounds to accompany Daguerre’s earlier technique of using creative light and shadow to reinforce a lifelikeness. The effects were—and still are—sublime. Writes, Stephen Quinn, “Crossing the threshold of the Akely Hall [of African mammals] one enters a hushed, darkened theater of the vanishing natural Eden of Africa. The looming profiles of a herd of African elephants gradually take form in the dim light. Surrounding this imposing central elephant group are twenty-eight luminous ‘windows’ to the natural world.” 3

Wapiti, AMNH

Wapiti, AMNH

Through lighting design and subtle spatial illusions, and through modern techniques in taxidermy, dioramas brought to life the long-dead specimens of nineteenth-century explorers, re-placing them in their “natural” habitats—many of which were not simply invented, but exhaustively researched by painters who visited actual places and painted on site, like new Humboldts returning to the primal scenes of nature’s gestalt. 4

Rams, AMNH

Mountain rams, AMNH

AMNH Manatee

Manatee, AMNH.

Dioramas also left behind the narrative text of earlier explorers: they were presented with minimal apparatus. The educational value of these diorama scenes was not in learning about ecology or ethology, but in the unmediated, affective encounter with lifelike scenes. Dioramas aimed to provoke wonder and awe as a means to understanding the fragility and finiteness of a natural world that was rapidly becoming an exploitable resource. “They were created to promote the love and concern or nature and its wise stewardship.” 5

Postmodern Illusions

Sugimoto's manatee

Sugimoto, Manatee, 1994. Gelatin-silver print, 20″ x 24″ (sheet)

Sugimoto bongos

Sugimoto, Bongos.

From a postmodern perspective, there is of course a weird irony in the very idea of “lifelikeness”—of creating the illusion of life from dead things as a way to connect the viewer with a really living nature. And indeed Sugimoto’s photographs belong to this postmodern tradition as well, taking scenes of nature that were first transformed by design and taxidermy to promote natural awareness and transforming them again by photography back into the two dimensional image that, ironically, seems more “real” than the diorama. They do this by reversing the three-dimensional process the diorama: unlike that process, which was additive, Sugimoto’s is subtractive: instead of adding depth, he removes it through photography. Instead of creating color, he renders the scenes in black and white. Instead of mimicking scale, he reduces it to the size of a portrait. Instead of including even the minimal textual accompaniment of dioramas, he eliminates it altogether. (Indeed, Sugimoto likes to play with perspective—photographing movie theater interiors flooded with light, and Madame Tussaud’s wax museum historical personages as massive black and white portraits.)

On display are not scenes of nature, but the transformative power of the camera to turn one representation of nature—the diorama—into another—the landscape portrait, resurrecting that earlier medium as art to put on view as conceptually far as possible from the scene of its first taking. Like a diorama, his images trick our perspective, but the trick shows us the aesthetic quality of the scene, rather than its authenticity.

The Lost Museum Found

But Sugimoto’s dioramas may also recover certain pre-modern sensibilities. Sugimoto says on his website that when he first spied the dioramas at the museum in 1974, they seemed “utterly fake.” Only by closing one eye and removing depth did they appear real again. His remark speaks to our own era’s sensibility, which is no longer convinced by the naivety of the diorama, and which only preserves them as quaint reminders of earlier episodes in the history of science, when art hadn’t left these museums to set up shop in museums of its own. 6

Before our modern museums separated art from nature, the logic of display was to bring all the universe under one roof. Naturalia (objects from nature, like specimens), scientifica (instruments for transforming nature, like photography), and artificialia (man-made objects, like diorama paintings) enjoyed a certain camaraderie. Those early museums—cabinets of curiosity, Wunderkammern—aimed to promote wonder as a means to connect the observer with the universe. The feeling of awe was supposed to be transformative, just as the nineteenth-century natural history dioramas aimed to promote affection for nature and the politics of conservation through re-staging the scenes of our first encounter with the natural world. Art and science and nature bound up in a window display.


North American Mammal Hall, AMNH

Teylers Museum

Gallery, Teylers Museum, Haarlem, the Netherlands.

Whitney Bird Hall

Whitney Memorial Hall of Pacific Bird Life, AMNH

The creators of museum diorama halls tried to recover some of this unified, cosmological significance when they arranged their dioramas like paintings in a portrait gallery. The great ovular space of the Whitney Memorial Hall of Pacific Birds at the American Museum of Natural History invokes the galleries of the first formal public museums, places like the eighteenth-century Teylers Museum in the Netherlands, dedicated to preserving its historical connection between science and art, and which itself had formalized the apparent hodgepodge of “stuff” in Renaissance curiosity cabinets. The Whitney Hall’s individual dioramas “hang” like paintings arranged on the walls, as if the artworks themselves are creatures in a habitat. Its roof, curved and painted with clouds, is the backdrop that gives the illusion to this room-scale diorama that we are outdoors. Benches in the middle, as in an art museum, let one sit and feel the pleasure of this illusion of immersion, and contemplate the great diorama that is nature.


Rotunda, Mineral Room, Teylers Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands. The Teylers is lighted entirely by natural light, as it was in the 18th century.

Recovering Wonder?

The nature invoked by those diorama halls is harder to imagine now that it was then. But this is the promise of Sugimoto’s photographs—to resurrect the wonder of the diorama that has been lost to a more knowing sensibility. Sugimoto’s dioramas resurrect, through mechanical process and tricks of light and depth, both specimen and art form. Natural history specimens from two centuries ago get a new purchase in photographs, but so does the diorama itself as another way of looking at nature: when we look at these photographs, we are looking, too, at the ways naturalists more than a century ago were looking at the natural world. But it’s a way of looking that oddly we cannot see when we look at dioramas without photography. The sensibility that allowed us to see through the diorama to nature, as “windows,” has been lost to time. We can only see those scenes now as images. And so in Sugimoto’s photos, their sensibilities are preserved as much as their specimens.

By reuniting the diorama with its early partner, photography, Sugimoto reunites two kinds of museums and two sensibilities—science and art—that went their separate ways long ago. Just as dioramas resurrect specimens in lifelike environments, the photographs resurrect that old museum art form in the lifelike environment of the Getty, a diorama in the larger diorama of Los Angeles. Sugimoto makes us wonder whether any object—any art form—is really ever dead. His images are like those taxidermied specimens, animals that are  only “dead” in one sense, in one context. In another, like the museum diorama, they belongs to a thriving ecology (despite that the ecology itself might have long ago succumbed to human exploitation).

Perhaps it speaks to the tragedy of our detachment from nature that the artist must resort to such elaborate means to recover a connection. And these are indeed pretty postmodern means. They acknowledge that we can’t see this connection until someone shows us an image of what we’re looking at—and that we’re looking. The camera stages for us something that is hard to recover, namely that someone—us—is doing, or once did, the looking and thus involved in the drama of the experience of the natural world. By looking at images of an artist looking at models of naturalists looking at the natural world, the images reveal that we’ve lost the sense of those early visitors to dioramas who saw through the diorama and experienced the awe of nature. Sugimoto replaces—I won’t say recovers—that awe with the sense that, through the act of looking, we belong to that scene, we are involved in its construction. This feeling, if not the unrecoverable feeling of direct experience, is an immediate one, recreated through thickly mediated conventions by which the act of looking itself becomes part of the experience.

Sugimoto, Gemsboks

Sugimoto, Gemsboks, 1980. (Oryx gazella)

The effect—spooky, eerie—is compounded by those diorama photographs in which animals look back at us viewers, as is the case with the troop of gemsboks, the Oryx gazellae, which seem to hover before us, caught in a moment of perpetual surprise and attention, as if we had just stumbled on them in the Kalahari Desert plains of Botswana. Their fleeting, ghostly quality suggests impermanence. Their uncannily lifelike look makes direct appeal, reaching out to observers where they feel least connected to nature, in an unlikely L.A. art museum. (It’s amusing to me, too, that the oryx is responsible for a wondrous illusion of its own—when viewed from the side and from a distance, as very early Greek explorers did when they visited India in the fourth century BCE, in two-dimensions as it were, its two horns became one and a bicorn animal became a unicorn.)

I want to say that there is a message of conservation embedded in this strange encounter with nature many times removed, perhaps a commentary on our distance from nature. Nature dioramas emerged at the same time that people gained a sense for the finiteness and fragility of nature. As our nagging sense of this finiteness and fragility increases, so too does our means of representing that sense become ironical. Perhaps there is an inverse relationship between proximity and awareness: the more distanced we are from nature, the more acute our awareness of the fragility. And the more ironical our means of capturing this awareness, the more perilous our relationship to the thing itself.

Iconography of Loss

Magritte, Trahison des Images

René Magritte, Trahisons des Images (The Treachery of Images), 1929. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

When talking about images, it’s useful to think in terms of signs—of indexes and icons. Early dioramas are an index of nature, that is, they point to (index) nature, like Adam pointed to animals in Eden and gave them names. An index references something, a presence. In natural history museums of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, word and thing were connected intimately, and this intimacy produced awe.

Icons, on the other hand, are images without a referent: they point at nothing. They signify absence, not presence. Perhaps the most famous icon is René Magritte’s La trahison des image (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) from 1929—a painting of a pipe with the line “this is not a pipe.” What is Magritte painting? A pipe? In which case the painting is an index. Or the image of a pipe? In which case it’s an icon: the painting’s lifelikeness is a trick that reveals the reality of absence. It negates the pipe even as it invokes it.

A lot hangs on whether Sugimoto’s photographs index nature or make an icon of it. If they are an index, they point to something, to nature. Perhaps they do this by indexing another’s index, another time’s way of referring to nature. We’re once removed from another’s remove, but still there is something at the end of all this mediation. But what if they are icons, images without a referent? What if they point to an absence, and the ghostly gemsboks are merely the residue, the after-image, of nature, standing in spookily, enigmatically, for something we’ve lost? If they are indexes, they index our awareness. They mean that we’re not children in the garden anymore: we’re all grown up. We cannot afford to be unaware of our relationship, our connection, to nature. They are a desperate plea. But if they are icons, all is lost.

pas des oryx



  1. Stephen Quinn, Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History (New York: Abrams, 2006), 6
  2. Quinn, Windows, 13.
  3. Quinn, Windows, 18.
  4. See the online biography of dioramist James Wilson Perry, Painting Actuality: Diorama Art of James Wilson Perry, Yale Peabody Archive:
  5. Quinn, Windows, 10.

Cesi’s Bees

Cesi’s bees are hybrids of poetry and nature. Their hive is language. Their keeper, Federico Cesi (1585-1630), was an Italian Renaissance scientist, humanist, and founder of one of the first scientific societies, the Accademia dei Lincei (Academy of Lynxes), devoted to the empirical study of nature using the most advanced observational tool available, the microscope.

Cesi’s microscope was given to him by Galileo Galilei, who joined the Accademia in 1611. Francesco Stelluti, Cesi’s friend, made the first engravings of observations from this microscope in 1625. 1 These images were of bees. Cesi wrote about them in his work on bees, the Apiarium (1625). He planned to compose an entire zoo encompassing all of the natural world, a Theatrum totius naturae along the lines of his predecessors: Aristotle’s fourth-century BCE Historia Animalium and Roman historian Pliny’s first century Natural History. The Apiarium was the only exhibit Cesi completed before his death.

Like those early natural historians, Cesi was a namer and cataloguer and classifier. The opening pages of the Apiarium contain various brackets classifying types of bees (e.g., “solitary” versus “civil”), their character (e.g., “stinging”), and their products (e.g., honey, wax) with greater and greater detail. His two chief classes are of course the honey-making bees, which are either wild (“solitary,” “forest-dwelling”) or civil (“urban-dwelling”). Among the urban bees, or those “who live together with work and duties,” there are those “who are accustomed to make honey in the homes of hospitable men.” These bees are “more humane, happier.” These are distinguished from “freer” bees, or those “who wander.” And among these wanderers, “tree-wanderers” are distinguished from “companions of men.” Solitary bees, by contrast, are “noted by a sound by which they seem powerful,” “Perhaps as if they are singing?” 2

Despite the folk charm of these categories, the Apiarium‘s interest in classification makes it indisputably a work of natural history. Cesi is interested in the character of bees. They are models of virtue—“guileless, pious, thrifty, celibate.” In this respect, Cesi owes much to Pliny, whose bees “recognize only what is in the common interest,” “note the idleness of slackers,” and will not attack a beekeeper “if they feel he is their ally.” 3

But in addition to these moral and folk qualities, and unlike Pliny, whose descriptions seem to come from reading rather than observation, Cesi’s descriptions are enhanced by his new technology: “If only you could have used the microscope, if you could have used the telescope, what could you have said” about the bees?” 4, Cesi asks of his predecessors. That their aspect is the “form of a bull” and that they sport “the mane of a lion”? 5 That their eyes “appear as beautiful golden dice boxes”? 6 That they are “multi-tongued”? 7 That their tongues are as “little spoons”? The microscope feeds his delight in metaphors, analogies, puns, namings and re-namings.

Cesi’s puts his microscope in the service of poetry. For just as the microscope allows him to see the minute structures of the bee, Cesi’s devices of language allow him to see the bee as constellation of natural processes that belong to the order of the cosmos itself. Bees, he says, are “first dew-gathering, flower-gathering; then they are honey-flowing, honeycomb flowing, the mother of honey, or, in filling themselves, the effectrix of divine honey.” 8 From dew to flower to honey to comb to mother to the divine, Cesi’s language fashions a chain of affinity that begins with the minutiae of nature and ends with a divine intelligence. This particular literary device is called antonomasia. It’s a kind of metonymy or substitution of an epithet or description (“effectrix of divine honey”) for a proper name (“bee”). We give the name “bee” to that creature that ranges along a continuum from dew to honey, from nature to cosmos. Like a microscope that reveals the minute parts invisible to the naked eye, this tool reveals all that the word bee contains and mystifies.

Likewise, when Cesi fashions a chain from bee to builder:

Marvel at the most artful plan of the substructures and of the suspended buildings, the joining and equality of the sides without any weight or danger of collapse…. There are royal cells, citizens’ cells, plebian cells and servants’ cells placed in order, each formed in a manner in accord with the dignity and worthiness of the inhabitant and with the plan of the work itself…. From this Antonomasticus we have the name builder in admiration. 9

From this list of bees’ architectural practices (from “substructures” and “suspended buildings” to the variety of cells) we get the name builder, an honored category and profession. Naming the bee thus invokes, through a kind of oratory apostrophe (“look to”; “marvel at”), our admiration and affection. To name is to love.

Still a free-floating instrument in 1625, unattached to a scientific program or method, the microscope is for a language-lover like Cesi a means to make better—more minute, more joyful, more virtuous—metaphors. And indeed it generates its own puns: “under the polished glass rise the greatest marvels and the eye learns to magnify its faith.” 10. The pun on “magnify” is important: revealing the aspect of the bee reveals faith—poetry joins science and religion, an important synthesis in light of the Catholic church’s hostility to the Copernican views of his colleague Galileo.

Where these aspects of Cesi’s natural history of bees make him a child of antiquity, in other ways Cesi was strikingly far seeing. The microscope may give him more powerful eyes to see the details of specimens, but, he warns, it also disarticulates and separates:

That which is much smaller than what we can know by our senses can become known, and you can study the many little bodies that nature has brought to completion if you apply the microscope. Any time you see many very tiny structures, you exclude many others still beyond these, which flee and elude all the sharpness of the instruments we make. 11

Observing minute features won’t show you the whole. And once divided, such features “seem to be joined with difficulty one to the other.” 12 Language, poetry, corrects the myopia of the microscope, reining in its disjointing effects by rejoining those parts that the instrument divides, like fragments drawn together in a mosaic. It does not occur to Cesi to use the instrument for purely objective purposes, to separate the bee from itself, or from the human world, or from the divine. Cesi’s microscope does not yet take the place of language, as data visualization. Rather, the complex analogies and puns that the instrument makes possible allow Cesi to express greater love for his bees, “sincere affection” made newly visible in its glass. 13

Likewise Cesi, especially in his desire to name the bee as a way to understand its essence, anticipates those later natural historians that developed systems for ordering and naming nature’s profusion, like taxonomist Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), who gave us binomial nomenclature, the two-word naming system that identifies genus and species (e.g., Homo sapiens). To him we attribute the first systematic methods for naming and classifying, endeavors that gave rise to the discipline of biology.

But naming animals has always been as much art as science. Names often reflect the creativity of their namer, or the history of our knowledge of a creature. Classification is a kind of metaphorization, an acknowledgement that we know things by the names of other things. The Apiarium, and its modern version “apiary,” derives from apis, the latin name for bees preserved in the modern scientific name Apis mellifera—which means honey-bearing bull. WApis, bull deityhy bull? Because the Latin apis comes from the Egyptian bull-god Apis, worshipped at Memphis in the early second millennium BCE, when bees were being shipped on barges up and down the Nile to pollinate crops. It was then believed that bees spontaneously generated from the heads of decaying bulls or oxen, probably because the religious cult of Apis tended to plant flowers in those same heads, which attracted bees, or perhaps because bees in the ancient world were known to build hives in the carcasses of dead, dried animals, lacking other cavities or crevasses. Hence the classical epithet, still extant in Cesi’s time, the ox-born bee (βουγενής; see Harissis).

But Cesi, ever on the lookout for a good pun, also says that “their name seems to tell that they do not have feet” because apes were believed to be born without feet either (a-pes, or without feet, according to Kidwell), which is of course why they hang from trees. 14 The writers of medieval bestiaries, who knew Latin but not Egyptian, may have been partly responsible for this pun and this mythical feature of bees: they called bees apes “either because they cling to things with their feet (a pedibus) or because they are born without feet, for they only grow their feet and wings later on.” 15

(Such names still abound: behold the stupefying Platypus anatinus, that unknowable unnamable swim-walking mosaic of time and extinction, whose name means “flat-footed” and “duck-like,” though it neither has feet nor is a duck, a thing of poetry whose physiology, like its name, seems to exist only in reference to what it is not, like the Giraffa camelopardalis, whose species name means “camel + leopard” because early observers of African wildlife simply combined known creatures to understand one they’d never seen before. And if you think that’s odd, consider the natural history of the unicorn.)

Invoked by our scientific names for things are strange histories of error, belief, and observation. Apis is thus a kind of apostrophe (“marvel at…!”), a wonder word that reveals the relationships of things and other things. The bees are not bees alone: they are tiny bulls and golden lions and divine honey and sky-born dew. When we name something we recall this constellation of relationships to our minds. And just as words are defined by other words, a feature that allows for poetry, Cesi’s bees generate new metaphors.

Naming things, writes Barry Lopez in Crossing Open Ground, is a first step toward understanding: “The quickest door to open in the woods for a child is the one that leads to the smallest room, by knowing the name each thing is called.” But metaphor, he continues, reveals how we are connected to those things. And “it is these relationships, not the things themselves, that ultimately hold the human imagination.” 16. Where we might say Cesi’s microscope shows us the “thing itself,” his metaphors reveal the relationships bound up in the bees–our past and our present relationship to the bee, the quality of our affections.

Speaking of children, naming animals in the garden was the job of Adam–our first classifier. In the garden, Adam didn’t have to think relationships or metaphors, because there were none. Only names. The garden couldn’t have had poetry. Adam simply had to point. It’s only when we left that childish place, and the relationship between names and things weren’t so certain anymore, that we had to invent poetry to remind ourselves of our place in a nature that didn’t care what we called it. Metaphor, we might say, reminds us to love in the face, says Lopez, of “the most insidious of human anxieties, the one that says, you do not belong here.”

Even the botanist Linnaeus, the Adam of modern taxonomy, who tried to tame the profusion of names that had plagued early classifiers whose names for things were essentially long lists of characters, engaged in some creative naming based probably more on his own fecund preoccupations with love than on the occupations of plants when he chose to emphasize sexual characters as the means by which to identify them: classes of plants were organized according to andria (for husband) or gynia (for wife). And despite the scandalous, non-exclusive sex behaviors of plants (diantriatriandria, and so on), his classes persist. 17

Why Linnaeus chose sex characters and not something else says more about him than about plants, and he himself recognized this folk quality of his system. His rival, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, wanted to name things not according to visible characters, which might have little to do with the essential nature of an organism, but rather according to those qualities that spoke to the actual relationships of one species to another. That is, he wanted something less “artificial” and more “natural.” Though his was more sophisticated, Buffon’s taxonomical system lost to Linnaeus’s simpler, more childlike binomial system, partly because it was so easy to use and it made anyone into a naturalist. But their questions, and the questions of any taxonomist–and the questions of any poet–are the same: what makes a thing a thing? How are things related? How do we know? And what is that to us?

In the nineteenth century Charles Darwin made these questions all the more challenging. His theory of natural selection depended on the plasticity of biological life, or its ability to shade into new forms, like a word might shade into new meaning, or invoke other words. Concepts like species gave the false sense that organisms didn’t change, which is another way of saying that organisms don’t belong to other organisms, or to their environment. The tendency to modify, to throw off mutations, is a feature of life. These mutations might lead to new varieties and eventually to new species. Life, we might say, behaves a lot like poetry. So in order to break open our minds about how life actually works—that all is connected to all—he took to task the whole project of naming and categorizing, claiming that “a well-marked variety may be justly called an incipient species.” 18 His argument in On the Origin of Species (1859) was aimed at the army of catalogue-mad naturalists that took their cues from Linnaeus and obsessively classified and named because they believed in the fixity of forms, not in evolution. If we let our tools—our classifications—become reality, we lose the sense of life itself. Instead, he emphasized the “complex web of relations” that connects things “remote in the scale of nature,” like how the local population of cats which, “through the intervention first of mice and then of bees,” might determine “the frequency of certain flowers…!” 19

The problem of how to know one species from another, and how to classify, has reached its pinnacle in contemporary biology, which acknowledges, like Darwin did over a century ago, that “species” is an arbitrary distinction. Scientists now entertain around 26 definitions of the term “species”—based on qualities like the ability to interbreed. But those qualities, while useful (just as Linnaeus’s sex characters of plants was useful), do little more than place a man-made barrier between one thing and another. Defining a species as, for example, the ability to produce fertile offspring is another version of Linnaeus’s husband/wife flowers. And anyway how would we know which extinct species preserved in a fossil could reproduce with another fossil species?

Biologists now refer to “species concepts,” acknowledging that the concept is a tool, and there are multiple tools, depending on what you’re after. Any given designation of a species is conjecture. We have to look at the bigger picture. Modern DNA and chemical analysis have certainly taken us far beyond the realm of observing and listing anatomical characters, and they are certainly more precise. But even if DNA or chemistry could tell us where one species begins and ends, unlike those earlier naming systems they can’t tell us what a species means to us, the namers, who look at nature to see our place in the universe. Perhaps this is what Cesi thought as he looked at his bees through his microscope—an instrument as powerful in its day as DNA analysis is today. But he warned that the instrument was not enough. In this, Cesi is not a scientist, but a poet of nature enamored of a new engine for language. His microscope has not yet occasioned a scientific revolution, as it will in the hands of other instrument-loving scientists, like Jan Swammerdam or Robert Hooke. For him it is a tool that does more than describe: its new analogies reveal the relationship of the bee to a cosmic order, and how we might fit into it. Cesi’s bees are a case study in the language of science—lessons for an instrument-obsessed and language-deficient age.


  1. Stelluti’s engraving of microscopic image of bees were made at magnification 10x. The image found is in Persio tradotto in verso schiolto e dichiarato da Francesco Stelluti Accad. Linceo da Fabriano. Rome: Giacomo Mascardi, 1630.
  2. Federico Cesi. The Apiarium. Trans. Clara Sue Kidwell. Appendix to The Accademia dei Lincei and the Apiarium: A Case Study of the Activities of a Seventeenth-Century Society. Dissertation. Norman, OK: U Oklahoma, 1970.
  3. Pliny. Natural History: A Selection.  Trans. Robert Healy. Penguin, 1991. 11-12, 25
  4. Cesi, 261
  5. Cesi, 277
  6. Cesi, 263
  7. Cesi, 261
  8. Cesi, 157
  9. Cesi, 149
  10. Cesi, 133
  11. Cesi, 271
  12. Cesi, 263/5
  13. Cesi, 283
  14. Cesi, 279
  15. T. H. White. The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century. Dover, 2010. 153).
  16. Barry Lopez. “Children in the Woods.” Crossing Open Ground. Vintage, 1989. 147-52.
  17. Paul Lawrence Farber, Finding Order in Nature: The Naturalist Tradition from Linnaeus to E.O. Wilson. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 9
  18. Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. London: John Murray, 1859. 52
  19. Darwin, 72

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