Biological Terminology


I THINK Dr. Bather (NATURE, May 5, p. 301) and I may be using our words with unlike meanings, but he raises an important point. To use my own meanings: we describe when we say what a thing is like; we interpret when we account for it. Both these processes imply classification (i.e. identification); both are necessary in science; one is not superior or inferior to the other; but they are different. In description we classify facts and objects according to co-existences and resemblances. Thus, when we term a man a mammalian vertebrate we say, in effect, that in him mammæ and vertebræ co-exist, and that therein he resembles other animals. Is not all systematic zoology and botany founded on this kind of classification, a beautiful example of which may be found in the address of any letter sent by post—addressed to a man with a certain name, in a certain house, in a certain street, and so on? On the other hand, when we interpret we explain, we link cause with effect, we formulate suppositions, hypotheses, theories, we trace the connection between antecedents and consequents, we try to understand. Thus we class together such unlike things as the fall of apples, the rise of tides, the swing of the pendulum, and the motions of the planets by saying that they furnish instances of gravitation; we account for teeth and mental faculties by attributing their evolution to natural selection; we identify the blacksmith's muscles, mathematical and golfing skill, and acquired immunity against disease as results of functional activity. From the nature of the case there is little or nothing of this sort of thing in systematic zoology and botany.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Author information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

REID, G. Biological Terminology. Nature 107, 425–426 (1921).

Download citation


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.