The Linnean Society of London is the world’s oldest active biological society. Founded in 1788 by Sir James Edward Smith (1759–1828), who was its first President. The Society takes its name from the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) whose botanical, zoological, and library collections have been in its keeping since 1829. These unique collections are of continuing fundamental importance as a primary reference for taxonomy. They are enhanced by the Society’s own rich library which provides key resources for research.

The establishment of universally accepted conventions for the naming of organisms was Linnaeus’s main contribution to taxonomy—his work marks the starting point of consistent use of binomial nomenclature. During the 18th century expansion of natural history knowledge, Linnaeus also developed what became known as the Linnaean taxonomy; the system of scientific classification now widely used in the biological sciences.

Linnaeus was the first person to describe bats as mammals rather than birds, and place humans in the primate family. Linnaeus did not categorize humans alongside apes with any idea of an evolutionary link. He did it with the same reasoning he used to categorize all life, which was similarities he identified between species.

Most notably, Linnaeus invented index cards. He did this in response to his ever-growing lists of species which required a cataloging method that was easily expandable and easy to reorganize. You speechwriters and givers out there can thank Linnaeus for your primary tool.

Often referred to as the father of taxonomy, Linnaeus established three kingdoms, namely Regnum Animale, Regnum Vegetabile and Regnum Lapideum. This approach, the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms, survives today. Think 20 questions.

The work of Linnaeus had a huge impact on science; it was indispensable as a foundation for biological nomenclature, now regulated by the nomenclature codes. Two of his works, the first edition of the Species Plantarum (1753) for plants and the tenth edition of the Systema Naturae (1758), are accepted as part of the starting points of nomenclature; his binomials (names for species) and generic names take priority over those of others.

The strength of Linnaean taxonomy is that it can be used to organize the different kinds of living organisms, simply and practically. Every species can be given a unique name, as compared with common names that are often neither unique nor consistent from place to place and language to language. This uniqueness and stability are a result of the acceptance by working biologists specializing in taxonomy, not merely of the binomial names themselves, but of the rules governing the use of these names, which are laid down in formal nomenclature codes.

While the form of the Linnaean classification system remains substantially the same, the reasoning behind it has undergone considerable change. For Linnaeus and his contemporaries, taxonomy served to rationally demonstrate the unchanging order inherent in Biblical creation, but it also was an end unto itself.

Melody K. Smith

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