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/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

How & Why Scientists Classify Life




The naming of plants and animals was such an important tanks that the biblical GOD assigned it as a first priority to Adam. How do the livestock you want to keep end up with their various appellations, and who cares anyway?

Well, imagine being around a few hundred years back... being an inquisitive individual, of a very curious species you find yourself wondering about the living "forms" around you. What the dickens are they? Well, actually "they" are whatever you call "them".

The only difficulty with this scheme, and it's a big one, lies in the fact that other people have different names for the same apparent organisms. Is this a problem? Big time if you're trying to communicate with other folks. Think if you had to describe an "elephant" to someone in writing without a picture; "a big gray something with a long nose and four feet?" Kind of long, wordy and vague... and this is assuming your audience understands English!

Well, this is a postcard version of the cause and real history of common and scientific naming.

Roots of Our Mal-Content:

The ancient Greeks and Romans set the classification precedent by providing the starting point and language, descriptively naming the plants and animals around them. Much of their naming survived and proved useful through the scientifically slow and dark "Middle Ages".

Enlightened interest in the living world and economic surplus during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries spurred exploration and collections; and an awareness of other nation's non-agreeing names for living things.

What to do? Well, come on, what would you do? Could you get everyone to agree to using one language? What would it be, French, German, English...? What a quandary!

Thank Goodness for Karl von Linne:

Skip ahead to the 1700's and we find a revolution in the standardization of biological labeling. Credit goes to Carolus Linnaeus for coming up with an internationally acceptable set of naming rules. Looking back these seem and are obvious, simple and straightforward. The Highlights:

1) Lingua Latina: First of all Linnaeus chose the most PC (Politically Correct) language- Latin. Everyone could agree on it because most scientific folks spoke and wrote Latin already. Though it provided root words for many European dialects, Latin was a "dead" vernacular and therefore favored no particular nation. What's more, many of the existing names were Latin derived. We have continued and expanded (out of necessity) on this use with latinized Greek and modern language "borrowings" as more than a million species have been described.

2) Binomial Nomenclature:

Up to Linnaeus' time scientific naming was a lot like our example of an elephant; a long string of descriptive words. Karl von Linne (his original name) had a better idea; to apply a consistent two-word naming. In our species for example, a genus (Homo) for the first, and a species (sapiens) for the second.

There are a whole bunch of rules and even International Commissions to regulate who came first in their descriptions, what names can be used, and whether a species description is adequate. A few examples of these enforced guidelines: Genera, plural for genus (Greek for "kind") always have their first letter capitalized. Species and genera are italicized or underlined...

Priority of Names:

The rules of scientific naming state that who ever accurately and adequately describes and acceptably publishes a species description first, their naming takes precedence. Here's how this works:

You're taking a longing look at some fishes at your livestock suppliers and lo & behold, "what's that?" A new species? "Gosh, it's so ugly, maybe I'll name it in honor of my boss." Not so fast, bucko. In actual practice a representative collection over a geographic range is made, including a representation of sizes, sexes, variations in color, structure, genetics, biochemistry... and an extensive review of collections and all pertinent literature. This may be called for to determine if Uglissimus bossus is new to Science. Biological naming is a lot of work.


Now, you tell me; in retrospect doesn't biological classification and naming make a lot of sense? It is the easiest manner to instantly communicate the "what" that we're referring to, to any person through space and time.


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