Happy 300th, Carl

Happy 300th Carl Linnaeus! Of course, you have no idea who Carl Linnaeus is, but you are a Homo because of Carl – a Homo sapiens, that is.

wikipedia-CarlLinnaeus.jpgCarl Linnaeus, also known as Carl von Linné or Carolus Linnaeus, is often called the Father of Taxonomy. His system for naming, ranking, and classifying organisms is still in wide use today (with many changes). His ideas on classification have influenced generations of biologists during and after his own lifetime, even those opposed to the philosophical and theological roots of his work.

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For Linnaeus, species of organisms were real entities, which could be grouped into higher categories called genera (singular, genus). By itself, this was nothing new; since Aristotle, biologists had used the word genus for a group of similar organisms, and then sought to define the differentio specifica — the specific difference of each type of organism. But opinion varied on how genera should be grouped. Naturalists of the day often used arbitrary criteria to group organisms, placing all domestic animals or all water animals together. Part of Linnaeus’ innovation was the grouping of genera into higher taxa that were also based on shared similarities. In Linnaeus’s original system, genera were grouped into orders, orders into classes, and classes into kingdoms. Thus the kingdom Animalia contained the class Vertebrata, which contained the order Primates, which contained the genus Homo with the species sapiens — humanity. Later biologists added additional ranks between these to express additional levels of similarity.

Before Linnaeus, species naming practices varied. Many biologists gave the species they described long, unwieldy Latin names, which could be altered at will; a scientist comparing two descriptions of species might not be able to tell which organisms were being referred to. For instance, the common wild briar rose was referred to by different botanists as Rosa sylvestris inodora seu canina and as Rosa sylvestris alba cum rubore, folio glabro. The need for a workable naming system was made even greater by the huge number of plants and animals that were being brought back to Europe from Asia, Africa, and the Americas. After experimenting with various alternatives, Linnaeus simplified naming immensely by designating one Latin name to indicate the genus, and one as a “shorthand” name for the species. The two names make up the binomial (“two names”) species name. For instance, in his two-volume work Species Plantarum (The Species of Plants), Linnaeus renamed the briar rose Rosa canina. This binomial system rapidly became the standard system for naming species. Zoological and most botanical taxonomic priority begin with Linnaeus: the oldest plant names accepted as valid today are those published in Species Plantarum, in 1753, while the oldest animal names are those in the tenth edition of Systema Naturae (1758), the first edition to use the binomial system consistently throughout. Although Linnaeus was not the first to use binomials, he was the first to use them consistently, and for this reason, Latin names that naturalists used before Linnaeus are not usually considered valid under the rules of nomenclature.

Now you know where the name comes from. So celebrate your taxonomy today.

[tags]Happy Birthday Carl Linnaeus, The origins of modern taxonomy[/tags]