Unknown Life: Linnaeus's 300th Birthday


Despite centuries of scientific effort classifying life, the vast majority of living things remain unknown, reports LiveScience on comments made by renowned Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson.

Speaking at the New York Botanical Garden, Wilson discussed Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus’s book Systema Naturae, a 1735 proposal for a system of classifying plants, animals and minerals. This year is the 300th anniversary of Linnaeus’s birth.

Linnaeus’s efforts helped kick off the scientific attempt to categorize all living things—an attempt that may have uncovered as few as 10 percent of the earth’s current species, according to Wilson.

“We live, in short, on a little-known planet. When dealing with the living world, we are flying mostly blind,” Wilson explained. As an example he cited experts’ predictions of the actual number of roundworms, thought to possibly number millions of species—even though “only” about 16,000 are actually known.

Part of Wilson’s lecture focused on the Encyclopedia of Life project, an attempt to finally map the entirety of Earth’s diverse biological universe. “In short, it aims to undergird a unified biology which I believe will be the great achievement of the 21st century, the age of synthesis that we have now entered,” explained Wilson.

Linnaeus’s hierarchical system of classification and naming is the origin of the familiar genus/species designation regime, whereby scientists refer to, e.g., an American robin as Turdus migratorius.

Of Linnaeus, evolutionist Wilson complimented that it was he “who led the way in the systematic exploration of life on this planet, which we must now, for the good of the planet and humanity, hurry up to finish.”

Just one last thing that LiveScience—and presumably Wilson—neglected to mention: Linnaeus was a dedicated creationist, and his idea of classifying life was in part an outgrowth of his creationist beliefs.

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