by Alfred L. Rosenberger, Ph.D.
People who live in natural environments are highly aware of the organisms around them. Some scientists even believe we have a genetic, instinctual fondness for nature that explains why humans are so preoccupied with plants and animals. There are surely practical reasons, too. For those living off either a lush rain forest or the inhospitable Arctic, local plants and animals can provide food, shelter, clothing and fuel for cooking fires or warmth. Even in less extreme regions, a rudimentary or basic knowledge of environmental biology, including food-related facts like the fruiting patterns of trees and the grazing habits of large mammals, has always been important to survival, so it has become a significant part of the cultural traditions of people virtually everywhere. As you might expect, each culture and language system has its own names for the plants and animals with which they live. We call this traditional age-old practice of naming species folk taxonomy.
Folk taxonomy is not only the historical root of modern biological classification, it is also crucially important to modern research scientists, who often rely on traditional knowledge when investigating native species. This is especially true as they examine biodiversity in complex tropical environments where local people are apt to recognize a vast number of organisms. For example, an international team of botanists coordinated by the New York Botanical Gardens is now surveying plants in the Brazilian state of Acre, a heavily forested region about the size of Great Britain situated at the base of the Andes in the western Amazon. So far, in over a decade of work, they have identified and collected more than 3,000 types of plants. The scientists also learned that natives and other local people had already named a majority of these plants in their own languages. This is remarkable, since their purpose has been to use the plants in customary ways and to maintain traditional cultural knowledge, not to build a comprehensive scientific database.
Folk taxonomy gradually evolved into a formal system for organizing the names of organisms, which is called taxonomy. Among Europeans, we can trace the beginnings of organized, written taxonomies to ancient Greece, where the philosopher and naturalist Theophrastus, a disciple of Aristotle classified plants as herbs, shrubs, or trees as early as 300 BC. Theophrastus learned of non-native plants from Alexander the Great, who sent back specimens collected during his expeditions to conquer much of the western world. During the 16th and 17th centuries, another round of famous expeditions marked the Age of Exploration. Dozens of explorers, including Magellan, Henry Hudson, and Hernando Cortes, traveled to distant parts of the globe and returned not only with stories of what they had seen, but also with samples of the plants and animals they encountered. By the 19th century, the idea of collecting exotic species became common practice and laid the foundation for research in the natural sciences. Charles Darwin, who developed the modern theory of evolution by natural selection in the middle 1800s, was one of many naturalists commissioned to collect, record and describe the species he saw during his travels.
In consequence, as Europe emerged from the Middle Ages, scientists were kept busy describing these many new species and naming them in Latin, which was the language generally used for scholarly purposes. Progress was also being made cataloging the kinds of plants and animals that existed. Naturalists, such as John Ray, began to develop a scientific basis for recognizing species. Ray and others began to inventory species by arranging them into logical classes based on their appearance and characteristics. But without sharing commonly accepted standards for composing names - even regarding such a simple rule as how long a name ought to be - adding more scientific names to the literature created more confusion. For example, before a widely accepted taxonomic system was in place, the common Wild Briar Rose was identified by botanists as Rosa sylvestris alba cum rubore, folio glabro (roughly meaning pinkish white woodland rose with hairless leaves), and Rosa sylvestris inodora seu canina (odorless woodland dog rose). How was one to know if these names referred to one thing or two, that is, to one or two species?
Old naming convention
Rosa sylvestris alba cum rubore folio glabro
Rosa sylvestris inodora seu canina
In the 18th century, the Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus more or less invented our modern system of taxonomy and classification. Linnaeus was one of the leading naturalists of the 18th century, a time when the study of natural history was considered one of the most prestigious areas of science. Unlike his predecessors, Linnaeus adhered rigidly to the principal that each species must be identified by a set of names, which are termed the "genus" and "species," and classified on the basis of their similarities and differences. Although he was primarily a botanist, Linnaeus produced a comprehensive list of all organisms then known worldwide, some 7,700 plant and 4,400 animal species. He wrote one of the great classic works in the history of science, Systema Naturae, and revised it many times.
Figure 1: The cover of Linnaeus’ classic work, Systema Naturæ, which is generally considered to be the start of modern taxonomy.
We now take the 10th revision of Systema Naturae, published in 1758, as the official start of modern taxonomy and the first formal biological classification. It is a benchmark of modern taxonomy, one of the most important built-in checks to help us keep the many names straight. This is why when we come across taxonomic names, such as the official-looking labels identifying an animal in the zoo, Linnaeus’s authorship is often acknowledged, and no dates of authorship are ever earlier than 1758. For instance, the plaque outside a gorilla exhibit may read:
This is more than a simple caption. Its purpose is to let us know, clearly, that the gorillas on display are the same type of animal that the French naturalist Isidore Geoffroy named Gorilla in his publication of 1853. It also tells us that the gorilla belongs to a group of mammals known as Primates, which in turn was named by Linnaeus in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae . Where did that odd name “gorilla” come from? As far as we know, it was introduced to Europe by the Greek explorer Hanno, who visited northwestern Africa during the sixth century BC It was the word that Hanno thought the local African people used to call gorillas (and supposedly meaning wild or hairy women). In other words, it was part of their folk taxonomy, adopted by Hanno and still in fashion today after being introduced into the formal Linnaean taxonomic system by Geoffroy in 1853.
Alfred L. Rosenberger, Ph.D. "Taxonomy I: What's in a name?," Visionlearning Vol. BIO (1), 2003.