The Name of the Game

IN AUGUST, BOTANISTS MET IN   Uppsala to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Carolus Linnaeus’ publication of his first blockbuster, Species Plantarum. Linnaeus wrote about plants before he extended his innovative naming system to the rest of the natural world in Systema Naturae. I’ve always suspected that the order in which this happened was no accident: Plants have the decency to hold still while you study them.
People have always named the plants and other beings around them. It’s such a human universal that the Book of Genesis makes it the first man’s first job, and the Tao Te Ching starts right out declaring in apparent frustration that “naming is the mother of the ten thousand things.” Some people seem to find the process suspect, even going so far as to call it a form of conquest. Knowledge isn’t only power—as we all know, “to know, know, know him is to love, love, love him.”
When Linnaeus put his system down on paper, several factors were at work. For one, Latin binomials were getting popular in northern Europe. Linneaus’ father was christened Nils Ingemarsson—“Nils, Ingemar’s son”— in the old fashion, but took a surname to be handed down like the family silver when he went off to school. So his son, born in 1707, was Carl Linné (later “von Linné” when he became official nobility) rather than Carl Nilsson. It was in fashion to Latinize that re-usable name; ergo, Carolus Linnaeus.
Linné the First named himself and his progeny after a particular linden tree, a local celebrity who lived until about 1823. The whole family must have been impressed by this tree; other branches took the names “Lindelius” and “Tiliander.” Tilia cordata is what we call the European linden officially, and it’s a good idea since the Brits have the habit of calling it “lime” and confusing everybody.
The other factor was that the sheer number of species known to Linnaeus’ community had taken a leap into bewildering multiplicity as plants and animals were brought back or described from the Western Hemisphere and the Southern Pacific. For two centuries, these novelties had been being presented to scholars, and they needed to make sense of what they were seeing.
Linnaeus wasn’t the first to try to systematize naming. Various systems had been in place, some including names that were almost entire sentences. One classic is Mentha floribus capitatus, foliis lanceolatis serratis subpetiolatis—“The mint of flowers in a head, of leaves lance-shaped(,) sawtoothed(,) (with) petioles barely there.” I’m translating “subpetiolaris” freely; literally it talks of something that’s not quite a petiole. Imagine a fieldguide full of such names, and you’ll begin to appreciate the abbreviated ones Linnaeus gave us. They started out as marginal notes; I’m betting that people usually just called that poor plant “peppermint” or its equivalent, so the new “Mentha piperata” was close enough to the vernacular to encourage its use.
Brevity wasn’t the sole wit of Linnaeus’ system, and certainly not the only reason it has stuck. The use of Latin, a language in use even then mostly for scholarly and religious purposes, turned out to be a stabilizer. It’s not true that it’s a “dead language”—but scholars are the ones making modifications, and those are vocabulary additions and adaptations. In this, they’re even more rapacious than the old Romans in swiping things wholesale from the Greeks, and proper nouns from anyone.
But Linnaeus’ system had the crowning virtue of a concrete base—it describes relationships. There’s little doubt that learning to think in Linnean species-genus-family terms grounded the observations of Darwin and Wallace a century later. By making it an assumption that living beings were connected by biology, the system prodded naturalists to wonder why and how.
In making   sense of the ten thousand things that crossed his view, Linnaeus solidified a system of thinking that worked precisely because it jibed with reality and remained faithful to the facts. That has required frustrating work on our part to maintain it as relationships are clarified and plants re-named—What happened to the Liliaceae?—but that’s the burden of living knowledge.
And there’s one more burden: Complaints that the current species binomials don’t quite reflect evolutionary relationships might be pushing a whole new naming system, lately called “PhyloCode,” icky internal uppercase and all. Expect at least a new round of fieldguides out of that in the next decade.

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