Science Talk

What's In A Latin Name: The Legacy of Linnaeus

In this episode, Harvard naturalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author EO Wilson talks about Linnaeus and the continuing effort to classify life on earth. From a talk given at the New York Botanical Garden on November 8th. Websites mentioned on this episode include:;;

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Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting December 26th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, I've got a slightly late Christmas gift for you, a talk by Harvard naturalist E. O. Wilson. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. On November 8th, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, E. O. Wilson spoke at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. The occasion was a celebration of a rare tour of one of the fundamental books in the history of science, Carl Linnaeus' Systema Naturae. The 1758 edition of the book was the first serious attempt to categorize and classify animal life on earth. Wilson talked about the great Swedish naturalist and today's effort to carry on the task Linnaeus began. I recorded Wilson's talk and when I asked him afterwards if I could share it with the SciAm audience he said, "I hope you will." It's edited slightly for time. Here's E. O. Wilson.

(Excerpts from E. O. Wilson's talk)

I wanted to call attention through a delightful song that's been composed locally and the copy of that was given to me by Karen Bloom, who teaches elementary school—and you know, we've always felt that the study of biological diversity was a great way to bring kids into science, not just science, but also get them thinking about nature and enjoying nature in early age, and there would be something they should hear about all through their educational experience—so here is the song that they sing at Karen Bloom's classes. It's sung to the—I am not going to sing, relax—but it's sung to the tune of "Clementine" and its title is "Classification is Easy".

(Singing: Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species/we will all learn classification just as easy as you please.

When we study living creatures, we must call them the right name/ so we can group them by their features and how they are all the same./ Of course Aristotle tried to group things based on what he had observed,/ but Linnaeus used a method where he named them with two words, binomial nomenclature/ It isn't too hard to explain, but just remember bi means "two" and nomial means "its name",/ so it won't be too confusing to the scientists of the world;/ the names are all in Latin, so let's use them boys and girls.)

Okay, well the rest is (sound of clapping) ... well now that's the essence of my lecture. Everything else is common theory. And I would like to begin by making a reminder, not necessarily to many of the distinguished experts sitting in this room, that we are—as far as our field is concerned—you know, a veritable explosion of centennial observance. Because this year of course we have Linnaeus’ tercentenary work and next year—something I originally pointed out to my Swedish colleagues several years ago; I said, "you must celebrate this one" and that's the 250th, the quarter millennium of the publication of the tenth edition of the Systema Naturae, the beginning at least for animals; I mean, this was to be the truth from then on for all organisms of the priority system and the regularization of the classification system are for that persist to this day. Then the next year, '09, of course is the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth: February the 12th 1809, the same day, month, and year as Abraham Lincoln. And it's furthermore the sesquicentennial, 150 years, of the publication of the Origin of Species. So we're going to be in a frenzy. So, it's my privilege to introduce Carl Linnaeus—also known as Carolus Linnaeus, also known now correctly as Carl Von Linné—master naturalist of the 18th century, explorer, first synthesizer of the world's flora and fauna, professor of medicine at Uppsala (there were no botanists in those early days), member of the Order of the Polar Star, his favorite honor and hero of Sweden. He begins his career as many of you will know, by going to the north, to the wilderness areas that are still there in Switzerland, the remainder of federal Scandia, where he experienced what the Germans call Wandery, or the years of wandering, he went as a young man into an unknown area—that's the essence of this. And many a great naturalist has begun his career by having this kind of experience, turned loose to find everything that he possibly could about a place, where others really knew nothing or little; that of course was one of the transformative experience[s] of Charles Darwin as well.

Linnaeus' driving purpose was to bring order out of chaos in the living world. It gave us a system of classification. Systema Naturae: literally the system of nature that has lasted to the present day. It can be reasonably assumed, and considering its importance, as the first words to emerge during the origin of the human species with the names of plants and animals. That advance, which may have occurred as far back as a 150,000 thousands years ago, could be regarded as the earliest forerunner of science. Accuracy and repeatability in communication about the environment surely were then, as now, necessary for survival. Getting things by their right names, as the Chinese put it is, the first step to wisdom. During the past 2,300 years, systematics, the science of classification evolved in Western culture through four stages. The first was a hierarchical system introduced by Aristotle. Although this first recorded systematics of history muddled the picture somewhat by strict formal criteria and adherence to platonic essentialism, Aristotle did establish the concept of taxonomic hierarchy, in this case, the Eidos of a particular form and the Genos of the group of common or similar-appearing creatures. Aristotle recognized some 520 animal species, mostly from Greece, that were consistent with his definition of those two categories. During the Middle Ages and into the Enlightenment, much of the research of early life scientists, early biologists, consisted of systematics in the Aristotelian mode, in an effort to perfect the system of classification for all known plants and animals. Microorganisms of course and the smaller multicellular organisms were unknown and remained so until the invention of the microscope in the 1600s. But the work of these pre-Linnaean authors like Cesalpino and Bauhin, Tournefort, John Ray, culminated finally with the system devised during the mid-1700s by Carl Linnaeus.

The great Swedish biologist, whose name is virtually synonymous with modern era of systematics, made three decisively influential contributions; the first, presented in Leiden, Systema Naturae, the one that's on exhibit here, the first edition, formalized the hierarchical system of classification used today. It's the direct philosophical descendant of Aristotle's first scheme, grouping all known organisms into three kingdoms which were then divided successively downward into classes and other groupings, formal groups. The basic unit Linnaeus recognized is a species—thanks heavenshe hit on that—and he aggregated the higher taxonomic categories into successively larger clusters of species according to their anatomical similarity. Although he believed in special creation fervently, he nevertheless spent his entire career striving to define the diversity of life as a natural comprehensible system as opposed to an arbitrary, chaotic system. Linnaeus’ second major contribution was a binomial nomenclatural system, introduced in 1753 for plants, and Systema Naturae for animals in 1758, in the tenth edition. The early system that he used was very close to that of the very capable Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, who in 1700 characterized each genus by a single term and the species within it by a brief diagnostic description. Linnaeus' named for the genus, coupled with a single Latinized name assigned to the species followed by a diagnostic description, and so we have our own species Homo sapiens and his faithful companion, Canis familiaris. Linnaeus’s binomial system facilitated his third great contribution, the initiative to find and diagnose the entirety of biodiversity from the local Swedish biota to those all around the world. Such an effort became possible in Linnaeus’ scheme because large numbers of species, including novelties, could now be diagnosed and labeled efficiently. He limited himself pretty much to Sweden, and going up to Lapland, of course, and spending time in the Baltic island of Öland. But ever productive in his Uppsala headquarters, Linnaeus then also inspired students, some of whom traveled far and wide across the world, to collect and describe as many new species as they could find.

Where the launching of global biodiversity exploration was an 18th-century achievement, the great advance of the 19th century, the third landmark in the series of four great advances noted in the history of systematics was the introduction of evolutionary theory that [to] the leitmotif of biodiversity studies. The first to promote this idea was Lamarck; his Philosophie Zoologique, published in 1809, argued that the world['s] multitudinous life forms can be organized into a phylogeny, a history of ancestral species and descendant species. But Lamarck's reasoning convinced few scholars of the value of phylogenetic classification or even of the fact of evolution. His mechanism was wrong, and I won't go into the reason why it was wrong. It was wrong, and it deserves to be ignored tonight.

It remained for Charles Darwin, in his masterwork, On the Origin of Species, 50 years later, to provide massive and compelling evidence for the outgoing process of evolution. He also put forward the correct explanation for it: natural selection, whereby spontaneous mutations create hereditary variants, which compete for survival and reproduction, resulting in the gradual replacement of some variants by others over many generations.

Believe me, systematics would have been so much simpler for us today if only it really happened that God just created all the species immuted [immutably]. But unfortunately because of the evolution by natural selection, we are in constant turmoil trying to define species and diagnose them so and so on.

Anyway, applied to systematics, evolutionary theory cemented the concept of phylogeny and validated the classification above the species level, based on phylogenetic reconstructions. What then is the fourth and current advance in systematics I [allied]eluded to? It is nothing less than the attempted completion of the great Linnaean enterprise, by a full mapping of earth’s biodiversity pole to pole, bacteria-to-whales at every level of biological realization from the genome to the ecosystem. It aims to yield as complete as possible, a cause-and-effect explanation of the biosphere, and a correct and verifiable family tree for all of the millions of species. In short, it aims to undergird a unified biology, which I believe will be the great achievement of the 21st century, the age of synthesis that we have now entered.

This is the task which in spite of centuries of effort already devoted to it can be said scarcely to have begun, now 250 years after the Systema, the tenth edition, we still have discovered as few as 10 percent of the species of organisms living on earth. Most kinds of flowering plants and birds are discovered, but our knowledge of insects and other small invertebrates, fungi, and bacteria and other microorganisms is shockingly incomplete. For example, about 60,000 species of molds, mushrooms, and other kinds of fungi are known to science now, but the true number has been estimated to exceed one and a half million. The number of known species of nematode roundworms, the most abundant animals on earth, four out of every five animals on earth is a nematode roundworm. That number is about 16,000 species known, but the numbers of actual species could run into the millions; and we have to ask what are they doing? (laughs) I mean, if we don't even know what they are, yet but we know they are there in vast variety and in enormous abundance, then clearly they must be doing something important at these ecosystems that are the foundation of our own life. Well, now we come to the bacteria quickly, say, on the order of 10,000 species of bacteria have been found and described, but there are 5,000–6,000 species of bacteria in a handful of garden soil: one gram, one billion bacteria representing 5,000–6,000 species estimated. There are, in one ton of soil, four million species; we are just on the edge. As far as our knowledge of these go and the viruses whose genes are thought to outnumber in variety all of the genes with the rest of the life, we might as well be on Mars. Each of these and millions of other species are exquisitely well adapted—we have to keep that in mind—and they are interlocked into the intricate ecological webs of interaction. We've scarcely begun to understand, and they are a large part of the foundation of the world's ecosystem are lodged utterly upon this largely unknown part of the living world. We live, in short, in a little known planet. When dealing with the living world, we are flying mostly blind. When we try to diagnose the health of an ecosystem such as a lake or a forest in order to save and stabilize it, we are in the position of a doctor trying to treat the patient knowing only 10 percent of the organs. But now new advances in technology including swift genomics, this is where we are. We can give the entire genome of a bacterium, now one million order of magnitude, one million base pair of the genetic letters and do that [in] under [four] hours, and it's getting shorter and cheaper all the time; so we can now go out and begin to explore the other parts of the world. The digital photography, high-resolution photography pioneered by the New York Botanical Garden is way ahead of everybody else of all the types and authenticated specimens for, correct me again if I am wrong, over 90,000 species. The virtual herbarium set the direction and set the example for what can be done. With Internet publication now spreading around the world to other collections, this approach allow[s] us to speed the exploration of the living world by as much as 10 times and further to organize the information to make it immediately accessible as an open source everywhere in the world. This dream, it brought [to]the reality and practicability by the Encyclopedia of Life, launched on May 9th of this year; it represents the convergence of efforts by scientists working principally in museums and herbariums and other centers of the major collections of species diversity and planners in the large libraries that contain the totality of already published information in biological diversity; and has begun to develop irreversibly, because it is going to be a giant advantage, you know, quality-control Wikipedia, by which more and more people can contribute. And what it is, is an electronic encyclopedia with an indefinitely extensible page for each species containing everything known about that species. New phenomena and new connections among phenomenon will come to light as this develops. The idea is that as this information that goes online, then eventually we hope to help[have] the first 1.8 million species approximately thus completed in first 10 years. And as it goes online, it encourages more and more Linnaean-style expeditions and explorations. Then it will make the knowledge of our living world available to anyone, anytime, anywhere, free; and that is a reality already within our grasp. At the same time, the sort of initiative launch called the Biodiversity Heritage Life Library and this has begun to scan all of the biodiversity literature—that means most of the biological literature—and make that available online as well, all the time for anyone anywhere. There are estimated 300 million pages to go, but they are already past the first couple of million pages and with such encyclopedic knowledge then biology as a whole can fully mature as a science with and acquire predictive power species by species, ecosystem by ecosystem. For those interested in checking it out, we have a lovely little Web site, and the address is Encyclopedia will serve human welfare in the immediate practical ways with the discovery of wild plant species, for example—already this is going on so far into the garden but it is worth mentioning that it will go even faster in the future, adaptable for agriculture, new genes for enhancing crop productivity, new classes of pharmaceutical[s], all these will be accelerated. The outbreak of pathogens and harmful and invasive plants and animal[s] will be better anticipated. Never again need we overlook so many golden opportunities in the living world around us or be so often surprised by the sudden appearance of destructive aliens that spring from that living world. Well, to finish, we systematists, including those who planned the Encyclopedia of Life, will then [be] inspirited by the prospects of it and are grateful to the memory of Carl Linnaeus, who led the way in the systematic exploration of life on this planet, which we must now for the good of the planet and humanity hurry up to finish. Thank you. (sound of clapping)

Steve: If you [would] like to read my column on Linnaeus and his legacy, it's in the January issue of Scientific American; you can also find it free on the SciAm Web site. I created a short URL for it at, which randomly assigned it the fortuitous designation of, which is clearly short for botanical query.

Now it is time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Toshiba has developed a tiny nuclear reactor designed to power individual buildings.

Story number 2: The Annual Festival of Lights in the Los Angeles' Griffith Park announced that it was going green this year and banned all nonhybrid cars from driving through the event.

Story number 3: Linnaeus took revenge on people he didn't like by naming unpleasant species for them.

And story number 4: The fatty acids in reindeers' legs become more unsaturated closer to the hoof, which helps prevent the membranes from freezing.

Time is up.

Story number 1 is true. Toshiba's micronuclear reactor would put out 200 kilowatts. According to Next Energy the reactor could fit in a good size basement. "Hey! Look honey, the neighbors have their own nuclear reactor, we should get one."

Story number 4 is true. Reindeer legs do have more unsaturated fatty acids closer to their hoofs, which keep their membranes nice and loose. That's according to the University of Alaska's Institute of Arctic Biology. Too bad Santa doesn't have more unsaturated fatty acids.

Story number 3 is true. Carl Linnaeus was not above jabs at personal enemies by naming certain species for them. For example, he named a weed that produces a nasty smelling fluid, Siegesbeckia, because he had a grudge against German botanist Johann Siegesbeck.

There's more Linnaean lore in my article in the January Scientific American at

All of which means that story number 2 about nonhybrid cars being banned from L.A.'s Greener Festival of Lights is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Because what the authorities did was allow bikes in for one night and then banned bikes after announcing they were going green with holiday lighting displays. That's according to the L.A. Times, which also notes that a 150,000 cars snaked through the festival of lights last year.

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at and check out numerous features at the new Web site, including the year's top science stories, the hot topic section and the community. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Talk to you in 2008, and thanks for clicking on us.

(What a wonderful world/
I see trees of green, red roses, too/
I see them bloom for me and you/
And I think to myself ...)

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