Scientific classification

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Scientific classification or biological classification is a method by which biologists group and categorize species of organisms. Scientific classification can also be called scientific taxonomy, but should be distinguished from folk taxonomy, which lacks scientific basis. Modern classification has its root in the work of Carolus Linnaeus, who grouped species according to shared physical characteristics. These groupings have since been revised to improve consistency with the Darwinian principle of common descent. Molecular systematics, which uses DNA sequences as data, has driven many recent revisions and is likely to continue to do so. Scientific classification belongs to the science of taxonomy or biological systematics.


Early systems

The earliest known system of classifying forms of life comes from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who classified all living organisms known at that time as either a plant or an animal. He further classified animals based on their means of transportation (air, land, or water).

In 1172 Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who was a judge (Qadi) in Seville, translated and abridged Aristotle's book de Anima (On the Soul) into Arabic. His original commentary is now lost, but its translation into Latin by Michael Scot survives.

An important advance was made by the Swiss professor, Conrad von Gesner (1516–1565). Gesner's work was a critical compilation of life known at the time.

The exploration of parts of the New World next brought to hand descriptions and specimens of many novel forms of animal life. In the latter part of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th, careful study of animals commenced, which, directed first to familiar kinds, was gradually extended until it formed a sufficient body of knowledge to serve as an anatomical basis for classification. Advances in using this knowledge to classify living beings bear a debt to the research of medical anatomists, such as Fabricius (1537–1619), Petrus Severinus (1580–1656), William Harvey (1578–1657), and Edward Tyson (1649–1708). Advances in classification due to the work of entomologists and the first microscopists is due to the research of people like Marcello Malpighi (1628–1694), Jan Swammerdam (1637–1680), and Robert Hooke (1635–1702). Lord Monboddo (1714-1799) was one of the early abstract thinkers whose works illustrate knowledge of species relationships and who foreshadowed the theory of evolution. Successive developments in the history of insect classification may be followed on the website[1] by clicking on succeeding works in chronological order.

Early methodists

Since late in the 15th century, a number of authors had become concerned with what they called methodus, or method. By method they meant an arrangement of minerals, plants, and animals according to the principles of logical division. The term methodists was coined by Carolus Linnaeus in his Bibliotheca Botanica to denote the authors who care about the principles of classification (in contrast to the mere collectors who are concerned primarily with the description of plants paying little or no attention to their arrangement into genera, etc). Important early methodists were an Italian philosopher, physician, and botanist Andrea Caesalpino, an English naturalist John Ray, a German physician and botanist Augustus Quirinus Rivinus, and a French physician, botanist, and traveller Joseph Pitton de Tournefort.

Andrea Caesalpino (15191603) in his De plantis libri XVI (1583) proposed the first methodical arrangement of plants. On the basis of the structure of trunk and fructification he divided plants into fifteen "higher genera".

John Ray (16271705) was an English naturalist who published important works on plants, animals, and natural theology. The approach he took to the classification of plants in his Historia Plantarum was an important step towards modern taxonomy. Ray rejected the system of dichotomous division by which species were classified according to a pre-conceived, either/or type system, and instead classified plants according to similarities and differences that emerged from observation.

Both Caesalpino and Ray used traditional plant names and thus, the name of a plant did not reflect its taxonomic position (e.g. even though the apple and the peach belonged to different "higher genera" of John Ray's methodus, both retained their traditional names Malus and Malus Persica respectively). A further step was taken by Rivinus and Pitton de Tournefort who made genus a distinct rank within taxonomic hierarchy and introduced the practice of naming the plants according to their genera.

Augustus Quirinus Rivinus (16521723), in his classification of plants based on the characters of the flower, introduced the category of order (corresponding to the "higher" genera of John Ray and Andrea Caesalpino). He was the first to abolish the ancient division of plants into herbs and trees and insisted that the true method of division should be based on the parts of the fructification alone. Rivinus extensively used dichotomous keys to define both orders and genera. His method of naming plant species resembled that of Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. The names of all plants belonging to the same genus should begin with the same word (generic name). In the genera containing more than one species the first species was named with generic name only, while the second, etc were named with a combination of the generic name and a modifier (differentia specifica).

Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (16561708) introduced an even more sophisticated hierarchy of class, section, genus, and species. He was the first to use consistently the uniformly composed species names which consisted of a generic name and a many-worded diagnostic phrase differentia specifica. Unlike Rivinus, he used differentiae with all species of polytypic genera.


Two years after John Ray's death, Carolus Linnaeus (17071778) was born. His great work, the Systema Naturae, ran through twelve editions during his lifetime (1st ed. 1735). In this work, nature was divided into three kingdoms: mineral, vegetable and animal. Linnaeus used five ranks: class, order, genus, species, and variety.

He abandoned long descriptive names of classes and orders and two-word generic names (e. g. Bursa pastoris) still used by his immediate predecessors (Rivinus and Pitton de Tournefort) and replaced them with single-word names, provided genera with detailed diagnoses (characteres naturales), and reduced numerous varieties to their species, thus saving botany from the chaos of new forms produced by horticulturalists.

Linnaeus is best known for his introduction of the method still used to formulate the scientific name of every species. Before Linnaeus, long many-worded names (composed of a generic name and a differentia specifica) had been used, but as these names gave a description of the species, they were not fixed. In his Philosophia Botanica (1751) Linnaeus took every effort to improve the composition and reduce the length of the many-worded names by abolishing unnecessary rhetorics, introducing new descriptive terms and defining their meaning with an unprecedented precision. In the late 1740s Linnaeus began to use a parallel system of naming species with nomina trivialia. Nomen triviale, a trivial name, was a single- or two-word epithet placed on the margin of the page next to the many-worded "scientific" name. The only rules Linnaeus applied to them was that the trivial names should be short, unique within a given genus, and that they should not be changed. Linnaeus consistently applied nomina trivialia to the species of plants in Species Plantarum (1st edn. 1753) and to the species of animals in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae (1758).

By consistently using these specific epithets, Linnaeus separated nomenclature from taxonomy. Even though the parallel use of nomina trivialia and many-worded descriptive names continued until late in the eighteenth century, it was gradually replaced by the practice of using shorter proper names combined of the generic name and the trivial name of the species. In the nineteenth century, this new practice was codified in the first Rules and Laws of Nomenclature, and the 1st edn. of Species Plantarum and the 10th edn. of Systema Naturae were chosen as starting points for the Botanical and Zoological Nomenclature respectively. This convention for naming species is referred to as binomial nomenclature.

Today, nomenclature is regulated by Nomenclature Codes, which allows names divided into ranks; see rank (botany) and rank (zoology).

Modern developments

Whereas Linnaeus classified for ease of identification, it is now generally accepted that classification should reflect the Darwinian principle of common descent.

Since the 1960s a trend called cladistic taxonomy (or cladistics or cladism) has emerged, arranging taxa in an evolutionary tree. If a taxon includes all the descendants of some ancestral form, it is called monophyletic, as opposed to paraphyletic. Other groups are called polyphyletic.

A new formal code of nomenclature, the PhyloCode, is currently under development, intended to deal with clades rather than taxa. It is unclear, should this be implemented, how the different codes will coexist.

Domains are a relatively new grouping. The three-domain system was first invented in 1990, but not generally accepted until later. Now, the majority of biologists accept the domain system, but a large minority use the five-kingdom method. One main characteristic of the three-domain method is the separation of Archaea and Bacteria, previously grouped into the single kingdom Bacteria (sometimes Monera). A small minority of scientists add Archaea as a sixth kingdom but do not accept the domain method.


The usual classifications of five species follow: the fruit fly so familiar in genetics laboratories (Drosophila melanogaster), humans (Homo sapiens), the peas used by Gregor Mendel in his discovery of genetics (Pisum sativum), the "fly agaric" mushroom Amanita muscaria, and the bacterium Escherichia coli. The eight major ranks are given in bold; a selection of minor ranks are given as well.

Rank Fruit fly Human Pea Fly Agaric E. coli
Domain Eukaryota Eukaryota Eukaryota Eukaryota Bacteria
Kingdom Animalia Animalia Plantae Fungi Monera
Phylum or Division Arthropoda Chordata Magnoliophyta Basidiomycota Proteobacteria
Subphylum or subdivision Hexapoda Vertebrata Magnoliophytina Hymenomycotina
Class Insecta Mammalia Magnoliopsida Homobasidiomycetae Proteobacteria
Subclass Pterygota Eutheria Magnoliidae Hymenomycetes Gammaproteobacteria
Order Diptera Primates Fabales Agaricales Enterobacteriales
Suborder Brachycera Haplorrhini Fabineae Agaricineae
Family Drosophilidae Hominidae Fabaceae Amanitaceae Enterobacteriaceae
Subfamily Drosophilinae Homininae Faboideae Amanitoideae
Genus Drosophila Homo Pisum Amanita Escherichia
Species D. melanogaster H. sapiens P. sativum A. muscaria E. coli


  • Higher taxa and especially intermediate taxa are prone to revision as new information about relationships is discovered. For example, the traditional classification of primates (class Mammalia — subclass Theria — infraclass Eutheria — order Primates) is challenged by new classifications such as McKenna and Bell (class Mammalia — subclass Theriformes — infraclass Holotheria — order Primates). See mammal classification for a discussion. These differences arise because there are only a small number of ranks available and a large number of branching points in the fossil record.
  • Within species further units may be recognised. Animals may be classified into subspecies (for example, Homo sapiens sapiens, modern humans) or morphs (for example Corvus corax varius morpha leucophaeus, the Pied Raven). Plants may be classified into subspecies (for example, Pisum sativum subsp. sativum, the garden pea) or varieties (for example, Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon, snow pea), with cultivated plants getting a cultivar name (for example, Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon 'Snowbird'). Bacteria may be classified by strains (for example Escherichia coli O157:H7, a strain that can cause food poisoning).
  • A popular mnemonic to remember the taxa is "King Philip can only find girl scouts" (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species).

Terminations of names

Taxa above the genus level are often given names based on the type genus, with a standard termination. The terminations used in forming these names depend on the kingdom, and sometimes the phylum and class, as set out in the table below.

Rank Plants Algae Fungi Animals Bacteria[2]
Division/Phylum -phyta -mycota
Subdivision/Subphylum -phytina -mycotina
Class -opsida -phyceae -mycetes -ia
Subclass -idae -phycidae -mycetidae -idae
Superorder -anae
Order -ales -ales
Suborder -ineae -ineae
Infraorder -aria
Superfamily -acea -oidea
Family -aceae -idae -aceae
Subfamily -oideae -inae -oideae
Tribe/Infrafamily -eae -ini -eae
Subtribe -inae -ina -inae


  • In botany and mycology names at the rank of family and below are based on the name of a genus, sometimes called the type genus of that taxon, with a standard ending. For example, the rose family Rosaceae is named after the genus Rosa, with the standard ending "-aceae" for a family. Names above the rank of family are formed from a family name, or are descriptive (like Gymnospermae or Fungi).
  • For animals, there are standard suffixes for taxa only up to the rank of superfamily (ICZN article 27.2).
  • Forming a name based on a generic name may be not straightforward. For example, the Latin "homo" has the genitive "hominis", thus the genus "Homo" (human) is in the Hominidae, not "Homidae".

Authorities (author citation)

The name of any taxon may be followed by the "authority" for the name, that is, the name of the author who first published a valid description of it. These names are frequently abbreviated: the abbreviation "L." is universally accepted for Linnaeus, and in botany there is a regulated list of standard abbreviations (see list of botanists by author abbreviation). The system for assigning authorities is slightly different in different branches of biology: see author citation (botany) and author citation (zoology). However, it is standard that if a name or placement has been changed since the original description, the first authority's name is placed in parentheses and the authority for the new name or placement may be placed after it (usually only in botany).


  1. "NOMINA CIRCUMSCRIBENTIA INSECTORUM". Retrieved on 2006-09-09.
  2. Bacteriologocal Code (1990 Revision)


  • Atran, S. Cognitive foundations of natural history: towards an anthropology of science. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. 1990. xii+360 p. ISBN 0521372933
  • Larson, J. L. Reason and experience. The representation of Natural Order in the work of Carl von Linne. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. 1971. VII+171 p.
  • Stafleau, F. A. Linnaeus and the Linnaeans. The spreading of their ideas in systematic botany, 1753-1789. Utrecht: Oosthoek. 1971. xvi+386 p.

See also

External links

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