Happy birthday, Carl Linnaeus

In honor of Carl Linnaeus's 300th birthday this month, Smithsonian magazine published a tribute to the father of taxonomy whose obsessive quest for organization brought order to nature, or at least the study of it. Linnaeus not only named and classified more than 8,000 plants and 4,000 animals, but invented the taxonomic framework we all learn in high school biology: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. From Smithsonian (image from Wikipedia):

 Wikipedia Commons A Ac Systema Naturae Cover
Prior to Linnaeus, taxonomy had been a shambles. There were complex names for even the commonest species, and multiple criteria for classifying them. The tomato, for example, was Solanum caule inermi herbaceo, foliis pinnatis incises–the solanum with the smooth stem which is herbaceous and has incised pinnate leaves. Linnaeus' genius was to apply the social hierarchy of his day, with its kingdoms, provinces, parishes and villages, to the natural world. He slotted plants and animals into a framework of five main categories–kingdom, class, order, genus, species. Almost incidental to his encyclopedic audit of the natural world was his decision to call each living thing by just two Latin names, representing genus and species. This innovation, known as binomial nomenclature, has proved to be Linnaeus' greatest gift to posterity. Any time Homo sapiens mention Felix domestica (the house cat) or Lycopersicon esculentum (the tomato) or Callyspongia ramosa (one of my beloved sponges) Linnaeus' naming system is invoked. Out of the babel of competing nomenclatures he forged a single, universally applicable scientific language…

At times, Linnaeus thought of himself as the second Adam. "Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit," he liked to say–God created, Linnaeus organized. The frontispiece of his Systema naturae, his magnum opus, depicts its author in the Garden of Eden, evidently applying Linnaean names to freshly minted creatures.

But how much longer will the Linnaean system last? Recently it has come under attack from some taxonomists who believe its structure is too inflexible to cope with the explosion of knowledge unleashed by DNA analysis. Today's young Turks of taxonomy want to abolish the strict ranked hierarchy of family, order, class, etc. In its place they advocate "clades," groupings that are based on genetic relationships and can be expanded, contracted or redefined as new kinships are discovered. For now, the traditionalists outnumber the iconoclasts, and Linnaean-style classification remains the gold standard.