The Way We Name Species Was Invented by a 'Botanical Pornographer'

By Diane Kelly on at

The Age of Exploration brought Europeans riches, a broader view of the world, and a hell of a lot of new plants and animals to describe. That was heaven for Carl Linnaeus, a young Swedish doctor with a passion for plants.

Linnaeus was charming, arrogant, and absolutely certain that he could change the way naturalists thought about living things. Starting with the first edition of his Systema Naturae, a thin volume published in 1735, he divided animals and plants into what he saw as natural groups based on their similarities.

He split animals into six groups: quadrupeds (the furred), birds (the feathered), amphibia (amphibians and reptiles), fish, insects, and vermin (everything else). His peers found nothing objectionable about that. But the plants? Those he grouped by the anatomy of their flowers. Which sounds innocuous until you realise that flowers are a plant’s sexual organs.

Linnaeus split plants into 24 classes, based on the anatomy of the male parts inside the flower, the stamens. Each class was further subdivided into orders based on its number of pistils (the female parts). That might have attracted little attention if he had given them relatively dull names. But Carl decided to make things memorable. The front half of the names for his plant classes simply told naturalists the number of male parts, but the second half was the Latin word for ‘husband.’ His orders followed the same logic, pairing the number of pistils in a flower with the Latin for “wives.”

Which meant that anyone using the Linnaean system to study, say, a plant in the Triandria Monogynia, wound up discussing “three husbands sharing one wife.” Some of Linnaeus’ contemporaries were not amused at all, calling the system “loathsome harlotry” and him a “botanical pornographer.” But it was better than any other classification system at the time, and became the accepted method of organising plants.

Over the next two decades, Linnaeus revised and expanded Systema Naturae as his students traveled the world and sent back new animals and plants for him to name. By 1753, he had developed a two-name convention for naming living things that replaced hard-to-remember and complex Latin descriptions. Thus, the formal name for the tomato went from Solanum caule inermi herbaceo, foliis pinnatis incisis, racemis simplicibus (the solanum with the smooth stem which is herbaceous and has incised pinnate leaves) to the much more concise Solanum lycopersicum. We still use the Linnaean genus-species binomial today.

[UCMP | Paterlini 2007 Quammen 2007]

Top image inset from Georg Dionysius Ehret (1736) via Wikimedia

This post originally appeared on Throb, Gizmodo's blog for all things sex