Taxonomy is the discipline at the core of biological discoveries, and classification is its most direct product. Essentially, taxonomy provides the scaffolding to construct biological classifications. However, the definition of taxonomy has differed from author to author through time and often has been equated with the discipline of systematics, mainly because the overall study of biological entities and their genealogical relationships should ultimately provide the foundation for building meaningful classifications. In its narrowest meaning, taxonomy is regarded as the science of discovering, describing, and naming species and groups of related species, while systematics pertains more closely to the study of biological diversity and discovery of relationships among all organisms. This article will review the discipline of taxonomy across time and will specifically focus on its historical contribution to discovering, describing, naming taxa (nomenclature), and building classifications.
General historical accounts on taxonomy and classification are in a few cases presented in books or embedded as introductory chapters of books but can also be found in a smaller number of journal articles. Book chapters are often introductory to broad topics in systematics and evolutionary biology. Examples of comprehensive historical syntheses are found in Mayr 1982, Morton 1981, Pavord 2005, and Simpson 1961. Journal articles are more often published with the goal of evaluating past and current progress in taxonomy and classification as in Stevens 1984 and Stevens 1986, or addressing the challenges faced in view of more modern methods to data harvesting as in Wilson 2004 and Godfray and Knapp 2004.
Godfray, H. C. J., and S. Knapp. 2004. Taxonomy for the twenty-first century: Introduction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 359:559–569.
Serves as an introduction to a special issue that broadly covers the current status and the future of taxonomy in the 21st century. The authors present a comprehensive overview on the value of descriptive taxonomy in the context of evolution and phylogenetics, molecular approaches, nomenclature, and information science.
Mayr, E. 1982. The changing intellectual milieu of biology. In The growth of biological thought, 83–146. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
Mayr’s detailed historical account on the development of systematics, taxonomy, and classification from Antiquity to modern times. He discusses many topics from pragmatic approaches to intellectual, philosophical, and controversial issues.
Morton, A. G. 1981. History of botanical science: An account of the development of botany from ancient times to the present day. London: Academic Press.
This is a historical account on the development of the botanical field into modern times. This book is broadly relevant because it highlights the main intellectual movements that have shaped the field of taxonomy, classification, and nomenclature.
Pavord, A. 2005. The naming of names: The search for order in the world of plants. New York: Bloomsbury.
A comprehensive account of the history of taxonomy and classification, with an emphasis on botanical science from the Greeks to the 17th century.
Simpson, G. G. 1961. Systematics, taxonomy, classification, nomenclature. In Principle of animal taxonomy. By G. G. Simpson, 1–34. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
A classic broad overview on taxonomy and how it differs from the discipline of systematics. The value of classification, its basic criteria, and contribution from Linnaean nomenclature are also discussed in detail.
Stevens, P. F. 1984. Metaphors and typology in the development of botanical systematics 1690–1960, or the art of putting new wine in old bottles. Taxon 33:169–211.
Summarizes the major developments in taxonomy and classification from pre-Darwinian times to 1960. Although the paper focuses mainly on botanical development, comparisons with approaches to taxonomy and classification in zoology are drawn to highlight the differences between the two fields and better understand progress in both.
Stevens, P. F. 1986. Evolutionary classification in botany, 1860–1985. Journal of the Arnold Arboretum 67:313–339.
Traces back the major developments in post-Linnaean evolutionary classification in botany.
Wilson, E. O. 2004. Taxonomy as a fundamental discipline. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 359:739.
This is a short but nonetheless relevant communication on the importance of descriptive taxonomy as the foundation not only for constructing the Tree of Life but also for ecology and conservation science.
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