More thoughts on binomials

Curtis Clark jcclark at CSUPOMONA.EDU
Fri Mar 17 14:28:44 CST 1995

Date sent: 17-MAR-1995

...and then maybe I'll shut up.

There is the implication in some of this exchange that Linnaeus was some
sort of a hopelessly antiquated fart.  Certainly his view of variation
lost popularity even within his lifetime (he was in my view the last
truly scientific creationist, but that is another story), but he had
an *ENORMOUS* effect on all of systematics up to this very nanosecond,
for two important reasons.  The first is that he turned out a number
of very fine students, who did likewise (he is my academic great-great-
great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather).  The second is that,
despite his acclaimed ego, he was able to compromise.  Remember that
he introduced binomials as a mnemonic--to him, at least initially, the
only things that *really* mattered were the genus and the (polynomial)
differentia.  His *intended* contribution to systematics was rejected
within his lifetime, but his binomial system lives on, because he was
smart enough to go with it, and because it is *mnemonic*.  As many
colleagues have posted to this thread, numbers are not mnemonic.  As
none of the opponents of ranks have exactly pointed out, mnemonics
are a bad thing when they cause us to remember things that aren't
supported by fact, such as the monophyly of the Reptilia (did you
learn the colors of the rainbow as ROY G BIV and wonder when indigo
stopped appearing?).  But I think it is important to remember that
Linnaeus invented and allowed to persist a system that was imperfect
in the light of scientific reality as he knew it, and that same system
has served for a quarter of a millenium.  Perhaps it is time for major
changes, but I think we need a clearer view of where we came from to
better see where we are going.

Curtis Clark                                       Voice: (909) 869-4062
Biological Sciences Department                     FAX:   (909) 869-4396
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Pomona CA 91768-4032                               jcclark at

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