The Origins of Taxonomy

Science  17 Dec 1971:
Vol. 174, Issue 4015, pp. 1210-1213
DOI: 10.1126/science.174.4015.1210


There are approximately 10 million kinds of olganisms in the world, of which we have described some 15 percent. The rapid growth of the human population will cause most of the remainder to disappear from the earth before they are seen by a taxonomist. These facts suggest a more rigorous application of priorities in systematic biology as well as a careful review of the principles upon which our taxonomic system is based.

Folk taxonomies all over the world are shallow hierarchically and comprise a strictly limited number of generic taxa ranging from about 250 to 800 forms applied to plants and a similar number applied to animals. These numbers are consistent, regardless of the richness of the environment in which the particular people live. Very few specific and varietal taxa are recognized in folk taxonomic systems. Until the invention of movable type in the mid-l5th century, written taxonomies were simply records of the folk taxonomies of particular regions. Subsequently, with the possibility for the wide distribution of books, it began to seem worth while to attempt to describe and name all species of plants and animals in the world. By the year 1700, 698 genera of plants were recognized; and by the year 1778, some 1350 genera, including tens of thousands of species. In 1789 de Jussieu interpolated the family as a higher level taxonomic category in an attempt to reduce the number of important units in the system to a memorable number. The family is still the focal point in systems of angiosperm classification at present, several hundred families being recognized.

Problems with the taxonomic system stem largely from the fact that it is not designed as an information retrieval device. In folk taxonomies, names are given to organisms and these are used to communicate about the organisms with others who already know the culturally significant properties of the organisms being discussed. In dealing with the vast numbers of organisms that exist, we tend to overemphasize the process of classification and the decisions it involves at the expense of the information about the organisms that we are supposedly accumulating. Frequent changes in names exacerbate the difficulties of the system and render it still less useful for information retrieval.

With modern electronic data processing equipment, it has become possible to record information about organisms, to retain this information in a data bank, and to utilize it for various purposes, including the construction of various taxonomic systems. The invention of high-speed electronic data processing equipment is seen as analogous to but more important than the invention of movable type in the history of systematic biology. By using such equipment to its full potentialities, we should be able to achieve a qualitative improvement in our perception of the living world.