The Beautiful Complexity of Naming Every Living Thing


The Beautiful Complexity of Naming Every Living Thing

image (2).jpg

It was 1758, and Carl Linnaeus was thinking about honeybees. The Swedish naturalist was putting the finishing touches on the 10th edition of Systema Naturae, his encyclopedic compendium of taxonomy, or the classification of living things, and the honeybee was ripe for rebranding.

At the time, the European honeybee was widely known as Apis pubescens, thorace subgriseo, abdomine fusco, pedibus posticis glabris utrinque margine ciliatis. The moniker was a reasonably good summation of the bee’s features: It roughly translates as “furry bee, grayish thorax, brownish abdomen, black legs smooth with hair on both sides.” The trouble was that it is a mouthful—difficult to remember and tricky to squeeze onto a tag. “Names could become polynomial to the point of no return, rendering them virtually unusable,” writes the German biologist Michael Ohl in the English translation of his new book, The Art of Naming.

In that edition of Systema Naturae, Linnaeus offered a solution: binomial nomenclature. Two words—no more, no less. Linnaeus wasn’t the origin of the idea—it was first advanced by Gaspard and Johann Bauhin, Swiss-French botanist brothers—but he was an exacting and enthusiastic champion. Linnaeus’s reference books were the first to use binomial naming all the way through. The honeybee became Apis mellifera (“honey-bearing bee”), the badge it still wears today.

Linnaeus and his contemporaries catalogued thousands upon thousands of species. They ran through a lot of Latin names, but there are always more monikers and species to apply them to. Centuries after Linnaeus standardized this vocabulary, the world still teems with untold stories and undocumented creatures. As many as 18,000 new species are newly described each year—and every one needs a scientific name.