Linnaeus, Carl

 

Carl Linnaeus was a Swedish physician and botanist whose system for naming, ranking, and classifying organisms is still widely in use today. In Systema naturae (1735), Linnaeus approached the problem of classifying species empirically. Beginning, not as most of his predecessors did with large classes, but with the individual species themselves, which he then arranged according to their similarities, he worked up from species to kingdom rather than the other way around. Linnaeus established the modern binomial system of nomenclature (genus name plus species name) for plants and animals. A tenth edition of the System naturae (1758) included a classification of over four thousand species of animals, including human beings, which Linnaeus was the first to designate as Homo sapiens. Within Homo sapiens he proposed five taxa of a lower rank. These categories were Africanus, Americanus, Asiaticus, Europeanus, and Monstrosus. They were based on place of origin at first, and later on skin colour. Each race had certain characteristics that he considered endemic to individuals belonging to it. Native Americans were choleric, red, straightforward, eager and combative. Africans were phlegmatic, black, slow, relaxed and negligent. Asians were melancholic, yellow, inflexible, severe and avaricious. Europeans were sanguine and pale, muscular, swift, clever and inventive. The "monstrous" humans included such entities as the "agile and fainthearted" dwarf of the Alps, the Patagonian giant, and the monorchid Hottentot. He also defined Homo anthropomorpha as a catch-all term for a variety of human-like mythological creatures, including the troglodyte, satyr, hydra, and phoenix. He claimed that these creatures not only actually existed, but were in reality inaccurate descriptions of real-world ape-like creatures.

Linnaeus’ ideas on classification have influenced generations of biologists during and after his own lifetime, even those opposed to the philosophical and theological roots of his work. His groupings were based upon shared physical characteristics. Only his groupings for animals remain to this day, and the groupings themselves have been significantly changed since Linnaeus' conception, as have the principles behind them. Nevertheless, Linnaeus is credited with establishing the idea of a hierarchical structure of classification which is based upon observable characteristics. While the underlying details concerning what are considered to be scientifically valid 'observable characteristics' has changed with expanding knowledge (for example, DNA sequencing, unavailable in Linnaeus' time, has proven to be a tool of considerable utility for classifying living organisms and establishing their relationships to each other), the fundamental principle remains sound.

Sources

  • Cleveland, Cutler (Lead Author); Peter Saundry (Topic Editor). 2007. "Linnaeus, Carl." In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [First published in the Encyclopedia of Earth September 15, 2006; Last revised February 19, 2007; Retrieved May 10, 2009]. 
  • Wikipedia Contributors, Carl Linnaeus, Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia, Accessed 10 May 2009.

 

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