250 years of naming living things

25 August 2008

Homo sapiens, Hedera helix, Panthera leo: these are some of the wonderful-sounding Latin names given to modern humans, ivy, lions, and every other species on Earth.

There are millions of different species on the planet and they all follow this two-name format – the first name is the genus and the second is the species.

This important idea was thought up more than 250 years ago by Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus and this week scientists meet to celebrate this anniversary at the Systema Naturae 250 in Paris.

Ordering biodiversity

Such a crucial idea has helped make order of some of the Earth's estimated 5-50 million of species - we’ve only named 1.8 million of them so far!

This means that people all over the world can communicate with each other without the confusion of lots different names for the same species.

‘Names matter,’ says Andrew Polaszek, ant, bee and wasp expert at the Natural History Museum. ‘If you can't agree on the names of a disease-bearing microbe, vital crop species or almost extinct animal species, you cannot even begin to combat, exploit, or conserve them.’

However, with such a variety of life and the thousands of languages that exist around the world, duplicate names do sometimes occur. For example the honey bee has thousands of common or local names worldwide, but a single scientific name, Apis mellifera, by which anyone, anywhere in the world, can refer to it, and know exactly what is being talked about.

Carl Linnaeus’ idea
Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) introduced binomial nomenclature, giving a species two names, still used t

Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) introduced binomial nomenclature, giving a species two names, still used today.

The person behind this naming idea, Carl Linnaeus, lived in the 18th century when there was no system to name the abundance of life he saw around him.

Linnaeus had a passion for nature and he realised that to help create some order, a standardised system was needed. He thought of the idea of giving all living things 2 names, called a binomial nomenclature.

The process of naming and describing living and fossil organisms to classify them into groups is called taxonomy.

Starting point for naming

Linnaeus classified all the living plants and animals known at that time in this binomial way. He produced the publications Species Plantarum (1753) and Systema Naturae (10th edition in 1758) and these became the starting points for naming all plants and animals.

Discussing taxonomy

Scientists at Systema Naturae 250 will talk about how taxonomy has changed over the last 250 years and how it will develop in the future.

They will also discuss how this information can be used and shared more widely on the web with examples like the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) project that is producing online pages for the Earth’s 1.8 million known living species.

Systema Naturae 250 is on 26-27 August in Paris, France and is organised by the ICZN (International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature).