Genealogy of the White Rhino

  • In the 18th Century, science advanced rapidly as a result of the Industrial Revolution.
  • Biology lagged behind other natural sciences.
  • When Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) created the principles of taxonomy (a system of classification), biology caught up and became a full-fledged scientific system.
  • Linnaeus' Systema Naturae, published in 1735 and reprinted 13 times during his life, divided all life forms into three kingdoms: animals, minerals, and plants.
  • To Linnaeus, the purpose was to create a natural system that, unlike a catalog, would be capable of suggesting – or anticipating – the qualities of taxons (objects) yet to be discovered.

The rhinoceros is an outstanding representative of African fauna. In the etching by Albrecht Dürer (1515), it is a knight clad in armor from head to toe, poised with horn pointing downward, ready to attack. This painting is a kind of antithesis to that formidable and aggressive representation. Here, the rhinoceros could be called a self-reflecting animal.

His somewhat bashful looks tell us that he is not at all sure of his noble origins. What would the author of that universal classification, Carl Linnaeus, say? Taking into account the multitude of identification characteristics, in what genus, species, or "kingdom" would Linnaeus place him?

Those characteristics are detailed in the profusion of scrolls covering the rhino's body. Besides, as we know from the principles set out by the scientist, only significant characteristics can be used for classification; weight and size, for example, will not do.

In the painting, we also see a hunter with his rifle – it is the famous African explorer David Livingstone who lived a century after Carl Linnaeus. An expert on Africa, perhaps Livingstone is telling Linnaeus about the temperaments and habits of African animals in general, and of such a formidable one as the rhinoceros in particular.

This dialogue between these two great people – the scientist and the explorer – could make a great contribution to our knowledge of world fauna and help complete the classification of animals.