Order from Chaos: Linnaeus Disposes

Order from chaos:Looking back

The "chaos" from which Linnaeus brought order can be seen not only as the previous and contemporary literature in which plants and animals were named and described in as many styles as there were authors but also as the explosion in new species found during European voyages of discovery that had to be accounted for in the overall knowledge of the plant world.

To bring order from chaos, Linnaeus did two things:

1. He synthesized the previous literature about all plants and animals known to the western world, determining which descriptions in one work correlated to which descriptions in another work.

2. He developed a comprehensive system for grouping, naming and describing species, and he added references from previous authors to his own text, correlating his names and descriptions to those of earlier and current writers.

His new plant classification system was artificial and thus undesirable from the point of view of those working to achieve a natural system of classification. However, what it lacked in naturalness it made up for in ease of application, usability, and expansibility. A problem with many earlier systems was that an inexperienced person with an unknown plant in hand could not easily find its place within the system and could not ascertain whether it was already recorded somewhere else.

The essence of Linnaeus’ achievement is that he succeeded in regularizing the way plants and animals were studied. He made systematics systematic, through a system of uniform description, classification and nomenclature, which in turn simplified and facilitated identification. Others had done one or more of these things before but in a more limited and less coherent way. His precise terminology, use of an international language, consistently-applied system and global scope ensured widespread usability of his system. The magnitude, utility and comprehensiveness of his system made it unique and influenced the way that his colleagues and successors would approach their work. Modern systematic biology began with his mid-18th-century publications.