The system of naming organisms devised by Carl von Linné (1707-1778), better known as Carl Linnaeus, was revolutionary for its time and is still in widespread use today. Trained as a physician but a lifelong devotee of botany, Linnaeus radically simplified the naming process of plants, animals and other life forms. Though Linnaeus’ method of classification quickly fell out of favor, his process of naming organisms according to genus and species has not; it is still the accepted method of scientific nomenclature in modern times.
Linnaeus’ surname was bestowed upon the family by his father, Nils Ingemarsson, a Lutheran pastor and devoted gardener who named his family after an ancient linden tree growing on their property. Unlike his father, Linnaeus showed neither interest nor aptitude in studying for the priesthood, opting instead to study medicine. Studies abroad took him to England and France, and over his lifetime his students sent him plant samples from all corners of the world. Though he wrote over 170 books in his lifetime, the two Linnean works which have had enduring influence on biological history are his “Systema Naturae,” an organized classification catalog of living things first published in 1735, and “Species Plantarum,” the volume in which Linnaeus first uniformly applied his method of naming organisms.
Prior to the development of Linnaeus’ system of naming and organization, organisms known to science were given long, descriptive Latin names which were by no means comprehensive nor consistent. The common briar rose, for instance, was known by several different names; applied on a large scale, scientists could easily confuse one organism for another. Names of organisms were also frequently changed on an arbitrary basis. Linnaeus’ system of “binomial nomenclature,” or specific two-name epithet, eliminated the confusing system of stretched-out Latin names.
Development of Classification
Recognizing that the old way of scientific naming gave rise to many more problems than it solved, Linnaeus set about devising a method of naming organisms which would classify them into related groups in a specific hierarchy. Long a lover of botany, Linnaeus naturally gravitated towards plants even during his medical studies; his academic travels gave him access to many extensive private botanical gardens where he continued to develop his ideas of classification. Though other naturalists before his time focused on other features or the physiology of the entire organism in trying to determine its classification, Linnaeus categorized relationship almost exclusively by the anatomy of each plant’s reproductive structures.
Method of Classification
Though Linnaeus himself admitted that a classification system based solely on one feature was less natural and more of an artificial hierarchy, he nonetheless based his entire system of plant taxonomy on their sexual organs. Plants were grouped according to the number of stamens their flowers had, though some relationships seemed less likely--for instance, conifers were grouped into the same class as several types of flowers simply because their reproductive organs appeared similar.
Though this focus on reproductive structures proved to be a major flaw in Linnaeus’ theory, his ideas for naming have persisted even as his classification scheme was quickly replaced. His system of binomial nomenclature--that is, denoting an organism by a genus name for a common relationship and a species name as a specific descriptor--vastly streamlined the naming process. Linnaeus also grouped organisms into broader categories of association, including family, order, class and kingdom.
Modern Classification Methods
Linnaeus’ basic naming system is still in use today as a standard for organizing and classifying relationships between organisms. Though several divisions have been added since Linnaeus’ time, the essential hierarchy still stands. Closely related organisms are still referred to by their genus and species, or binomial, designations, and then categorized into family, order, class, phylum, kingdom and domain. For instance, all animals are grouped into the kingdom Animalia, and all plants are grouped into Plantae. However, this hierarchical categorization may be used less frequently in the future as genetic research creates ever-more complicated family trees based on shared ancestry rather than common characteristics.