Naming species

1735 Naming species

The book of science

Tom Sharp

Carl Linnaeus philosophy of science Naming species

Naming species

Aristotelian nomenclature for species was descriptive— combining a term for the genus, such as Physalis for the nightshade family of plants, with a series of distinguishing terms or phrases for the species, such as annua ramosissima, ramis angulosis glabris, foliis dentato-serratis for the herbaceous annual Physalis known by many common names— Fisalia, Wild tomato, Winter cherry, Cutleaf groundcherry, Camapu. Over time, with the globalization of science giving more opportunity to discover ever more species that needed to be named, the Aristotelian method became cumbersome. Carl Nilsson Linnæus or Linnaeus or von Linné, also known as Carolus Linnaeus, Carolus a Linné, and Carl a Linné solved this problem by introducing binomial nomenclature by which a species is identified using only one term after the genus, such as Physalis angulata and by personally naming and separately describing ten thousand species.


The Linnaean hierarchy had five ranks: class, order, genus, species, and variety. Linnaeus was the first to classify human beings with other animals. He classified humans and monkeys in the same order observing that all primates have the same basic anatomy. His name for humans was Homo sapiens whose lectotype since 1959 has been Carl Linnaeus defining Homo sapiens as the species to which Carl Linnaeus belonged.


After centuries of trying we are still discovering and naming new species. The number of atoms in the universe is not known. Most of the universe is unreachable. Even the kind old man next door might die before he can be saved. Many creatures have died before they could be discovered and many that have died will never be discovered. There are many things that I would like to do in my life that I have not yet done— some because I cannot some because I have been afraid to try some for lack of time (a lame excuse or a work in progress) some for lack of freedom that I fail to give myself some because the opportunity passed and could pass again some because there never was an opportunity and never will be— for loved ones who will not change for loved ones who have died and some because of loving others as they have needed to be loved.

Mammalia is the class that includes primates as well as pandas, elephants, and rodents. Today, all of life is divided into domains, domains into kingdoms, kingdoms into phylums, phylums into classes, classes into orders, orders into families, families into genera, and genera into species. Linnaeus distinguished two kingdoms, the animal kingdom and the vegetable kingdom. Today we recognize six kingdoms: Bacteria, Protozoa, Chromista, Plantae, Fungi, and Animalia. (Just don’t ask me what Chromista are.)

Gaspard (or Caspar) and his brother Johann (or Jean) Bauhin had developed a simplification of the Aristotelian naming system by 1596, and had used two-term names for some species. Even though their species terms were still descriptive Linnaeus adopted many of their names of genera.

Linnaeus also has a connection to Anders Celsius. Linnaeus and the manufacturer of his thermometers, Daniel Ekström, could have been at least partially responsible for reversing the Celsius temperature scale, putting zero at the freezing point and one hundred at the boiling point of water.

See also in The book of science:

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