What's in a name? A history of taxonomy

By Sandra Knapp

Introduction

And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every fowl of the air and brought them unto Adam to see what he would name them, and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

--Genesis 2:19

Adam naming the creatures.

Adam naming the creatures.

Taxonomy is arguably the world's oldest profession, and naming and classifying what's around us is part of the human condition. Scientific naming began with the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. Scientists still use his system, but how much has the science changed from the days when Linnaeus, in a frock coat and with a powdered wig, classified the Earth's plants and animals?

Darwin's theory of evolution has allowed scientists to see diversity as the result of a dynamic process rather than a static picture. This makes the discovery, documentation and study of the diversity of life even more exciting now than in the past. As the conservation of biodiversity becomes ever more important politically, the work of taxonomists has impact not only within the scientific community, but also in society as a whole. Taxonomists today still go into natural habitats and discover new species; it is estimated that scientists have described only ten per cent of the Earth's species, so the task is enormous. Fieldwork involves plant presses, insect nets and hard work getting from place to place, just as it did in the past. Taxonomists house their collected specimens in museums, for their use and for that of future generations of scientists. Morphology is still important in the study of evolutionary patterns, so specimens continue to have a critical role in taxonomy. But today's researchers have at their disposal an armoury of ways of looking at the relationships between species--from electron microscopes for examining the tiniest organisms to DNA sequencers for looking at genes. In this seminar, Sandra Knapp, a botanist at The Natural History Museum, London, explores how taxonomy has changed while retaining its past, making it even more exciting and relevant now than ever before.

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About the author

Sandra Knapp obtained her degree in Botany from Pomona College, in Claremont, California. Her interest in the subject was kindled on field trips to the California deserts, where the sheer excitement of discovering the flora made systematic botany seem the only sensible thing to do with one's life. She went on to do a Ph.D at Cornell University in New York, where she worked on the taxonomy of the potato family in the New World tropics. Half of her time as a doctoral student was spent in the field in Central and South America, collecting plants. She came to The Natural History Museum in 1992 to manage the international project Flora Mesoamericana--a synoptic inventory of the approximately 18,000 species of plants of the isthmus of Central America. Her taxonomic work is focused on understanding diversity and evolution in the Solanaceae, the potato family. She also maintains an interest in the history of science and has recently written a book about Alfred Russel Wallace.

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The first collected specimen of Theobroma cacao, the plant from which chocolate is made, is kept in the Museum.