Organizing Life into Nested Hierarchies
Carolus Linnaeus joined the quest for classification after having trained as a physician at the University
of Uppsala. Botany was part of every medical students preparation, since most medicines were derived
from plants. After making botanical expeditions through Lapland and central Sweden, Linnaeus became convinced
that he could organize all of life into a single artificial system, one that would be his first step towards
comprehending Gods design in nature.
Title page of Linnaeus Systema Naturae.
In 1735 he published the first edition of his landmark work, Systema Naturae. In it, he identified every
species he knew of according to a standard nomenclature, a genus name followed by a species name. Before Linnaeus,
naturalists used unwieldy, irregular names that sowed confusion. But he went further. He classified genera together
in groups he called families, which he then placed in larger groups called orders, and then kingdoms, like boxes
Humans as Primates
was important in many ways, not the least of which was how he classified humans. He named humans Homo sapiens,
and placed us in the genus Homo. He also placed orangutans and chimpanzees, the two apes known at the time,
in the genus Homo. And he placed Homo in a family, which he dubbed Primates. Primates also included
two other genera, simians and lemurs. Although Linnaeus believed that humans were special beings in Gods
creation, he slotted our species into his system as if it were any other.
Linnaeus organized life with an almost geometrical precision, and was so impressed by his own system that
he used it to organize rocks and other non-living matter. Although his classification of minerals may now
be long forgotten, within the biological world, at any rate, Linnaeus system proved to be useful. It
was clear and straightforward, making the challenge of classifying new species far easier than previous
systems. It became the standard way to organize lifes diversity.
Biologists still use Linnaeus conventions today when they name a new species. But
Darwin rendered the ideas behind those conventions
obsolete. Darwin recognized that evolution
could produce the hierarchy of similarities that so impressed Linnaeus, as old species gave rise to new
species. Biologists still place pigs, porcupines, and people in Mammalia, but they do so because all the
evidencecomparisons of fossils, anatomy, and genes
confirms that they descend from a common ancestor.
The human species in a modern Linnaean system of classification.