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Retrospect

An idea that persists

250 years ago, Linnaeus laid the foundations for scientific nomenclature

Swedish naturalist Linnaeus (or Carl von Linné) had a marvelous ambition in the middle of the 18th century: he wanted to name and to describe all the known types of plants, animals and minerals. As it known today, he had no success. But it was he who was responsible for a notable feat, when he created binomial nomenclature, the most stable rule of biology to this day. Before Linnaeus (1707-1778), the species were identified by descriptive expressions called polynomial expressions, written in Latin, the cultured language of the time, which could just as well have four or five words as nine or ten. The first word of the expression referred to the genus to which a plant belonged, and the others would describe it.

In 1753, the naturalist published his book Species PlantarumNepeta floribus interrupte spicatus pedunculatis, Linnaeus wrote “cataria” (associated with cats), calling attention to a known attribute of the plant. Soon, the botanists of those days and those who came afterwards began to call the plant Nepeta cataria, the first name is the genus and the second the species.

The same held good for all the other species described by him, like Pteris vittata, a fern mentioned in the book that originated in Asia and is to be found in Brazil. Linnaeus came to be called the “father of botany”, although his system has come to be used for animals and bacteria as well. The first general rules for taxonomy were only drawn up in 1867. “Linnaeus nomenclature became so important that all the denominations used before him have no scientific value, only a historical one”, says Jefferson Prado, a researcher from the São Paulo Botany Institute (IBt) and a translator, together with Carlos Bicudo, of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. At the IBt, there is an extremely rare copy of Species Plantarum that was probably part of the first edition of this work.

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