[Taxacom] More on Linnaeus

Stephen Thorpe stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz
Wed Sep 4 21:53:14 CDT 2013

My understanding of what was in Linnaeus' mind is slightly different: The binomial system was analogous to the binomial system of people's names, where the genus is analogous to the surname and represents "family relationship", so classification did have everything to do with it (and this is independent of creationism/evolutionism). But there are far more species than Linnaeus predicted, so we needed far more genera and this required other categories to manage the genera effectively. The term "family" got hijacked for a suprageneric category, though it would perhaps have been a better term for what we call 'genus' ...

From: Curtis Clark <lists at curtisclark.org>
To: "taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu" <taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu> 
Sent: Thursday, 5 September 2013 2:34 PM
Subject: [Taxacom] More on Linnaeus

A lot of you are bringing up the problems with Linnaean nomenclature 
(and there are many). The history of its invention is informative of why 
it turned out the way it did, but it isn't taught much any more, I've 
already mentioned the reason for it being binomial; here are some other 

Both Species Plantarum and Systema Naturae combine names and 
classification, but classification was an afterthought (and it the case 
of Species Plantarum intentionally artificial), and naming wasn't a 
primary goal.

The reason for this is that Linnaeus was a creationist. I like to call 
him the last truly scientific creationist, because he wanted to answer 
the key biological question that every creationist should face (and that 
most modern creationists sidestep): What were the original species 
created by God? Linnaeus used the genus and differentia, a standard 
format at the time, to present more or less what he thought God had in 
mind as distinguishing features of each species (he wanted to 
distinguish Aristotelean "essential variation", which separated species, 
from "accidental variation", which resulted from the imperfections of 
the world).

So classification wasn't a primary goal. God may have had a higher-level 
arrangement in mind, but that wasn't biblically necessary beyond the 
fish of the sea and that sort of thing, and that could be the next phase 
of study.

And naming was subordinate to the differentiae. Many of the species 
already had names in the scientific Latin of the time, and as for the 
rest, the important thing was the diagnosis.

If it hadn't been for the epithets, the Linnaean system would be another 
footnote in the history of science. But it empowered others (including 
many of his own students) to focus on different questions.

A lot of this comes from my reading of Stafleu, Frans A. 1971. Linnaeus 
and the Linnaeans: the Spreading of their Ideas in Systematic Botany, 
1735–1789. Utrecht: International Association for Plant Taxonomy. ISBN 
90-6046-064-2. But I read it many years ago, so I may be misrepresenting t.

Curtis Clark        http://www.csupomona.edu/~jcclark
Biological Sciences                  +1 909 869 4140
Cal Poly Pomona, Pomona CA 91768

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