Modern classification is part of the broader science of taxonomy, the study of the relationships of organisms, which includes collection, preservation, and study of specimens, and analysis of data provided by various areas of biological research. Nomenclature is the assigning of names to organisms and to the categories in which they are classified.
A modern branch of taxonomy, called numerical taxonomy, uses computers to compare very large numbers of traits without weighting any type of trait—in contrast to the traditional view that certain characteristics are more significant than others in showing relationships. For example, the structure of flower parts is considered more significant than the shape of the leaves in flowering plants because leaf shape appears to evolve much more quickly. Much of the science of taxonomy has been concerned with judging which traits are most significant. If new evidence reveals a better basis for subdividing a taxon than that previously used, the classification of the group in question may be revised. A considerable number of classification changes as well as insights in recent years have been the result of comparisons of nucleic acid (genetic material) sequences of organisms.
See also cladistics.
The broadest division of organisms has been into kingdoms. Traditionally there were two kingdoms, Animalia and Plantae, but many unicellular and simple multicellular organisms are not easily classified as either plants or animals. In 1866 the zoologist Ernst Heinrich Haeckel proposed a third kingdom, the Protista, to include all protozoans, algae, fungi, and bacteria. In the 20th cent. his proposal was refined, and a grouping became widely accepted that was made up of five kingdoms: animals; plants; Protista, including protozoans and some algae; Monera, comprising the prokaryotic bacteria and cyanobacteria (blue-green algae); and Fungi. Other groupings have been proposed from time to time.
Analysis of genetic sequences in various organisms has recently suggested placement of the Archaebacteria into a separate major group called the archaea. In this system, the second and third major groups are the other bacteria and the eukarya (or eukaryotes), organisms that have cell nuclei and include the fungi, plants, and animals.
Kingdoms are divided into a hierarchical system of categories called taxa (sing. taxon). The taxa are, from most to least inclusive: phylum (usually called division in botany), class, order, family, genus, and species. Intermediate divisions, such as suborder and superfamily, are sometimes added to make needed distinctions. The lower a taxon is in the hierarchy, the more closely related are its members.
The species, the fundamental unit of classification, consists of populations of genetically similar interbreeding or potentially interbreeding individuals. If two populations of a species are completely isolated geographically and therefore evolve separately, they will be considered two species once they are no longer capable of mixing genetically if brought together. In a few cases interbreeding is possible between members of closely related species—for example, horses, asses, and zebras can all interbreed. The offspring of such crosses, however, are usually sterile, so the two groups are nonetheless kept separate by their genetic incompatibility. Populations within a species that show recognizable, inherited differences but are capable of interbreeding freely are called subspecies, races, or varieties.
The genus (pl. genera) is a grouping of similar, closely related species. For example, the domestic cat and the bobcat are species of the genus Felis; dogs, wolves, and jackals belong to the genus Canis. Often the genus is an easily recognized grouping with a popular name; for example, the various oak species, such as black oak and live oak, form the oak genus (Quercus). Similarly, genera are grouped into families, families into orders, orders into classes, and classes into phyla or divisions.
The present system of binomial nomenclature identifies each species by a scientific name of two words, Latin in form and usually derived from Greek or Latin roots. The first name (capitalized) is the genus of the organism, the second (not capitalized) is its species. The scientific name of the white oak is Quercus alba, while red oak is Quercus rubra. The first name applies to all species of the genus—Quercus is the name of all oaks—but the entire binomial applies only to a single species. Many scientific names describe some characteristic of the organism (alba=white; rubra=red); many are derived from the name of the discoverer or the geographic location of the organism. Genus and species names are always italicized when printed; the names of other taxa (families, etc.) are not. When a species (or several species of the same genus) is mentioned repeatedly, the genus may be abbreviated after its first mention, as in Q. alba. Subspecies are indicated by a trinomial; for example, the southern bald eagle is Haliaeetus leucocephalus leucocephalus, as distinguished from the northern bald eagle, H. leucocephalus washingtoniensis.
The advantages of scientific over common names are that they are accepted by speakers of all languages, that each name applies only to one species, and that each species has only one name. This avoids the confusion that often arises from the use of a common name to designate different things in different places (for example, see elk), or from the existence of several common names for a single species. There are two international organizations for the determination of the rules of nomenclature and the recording of specific names, one for zoology and one for botany. According to the rules they have established, the first name to be published (from the work of Linnaeus on) is the correct name of any organism unless it is reclassified in such a way as to affect that name (for example, if it is moved from one genus to another). In such a case definite rules of priority also apply.
The earliest known system of classification is that of Aristotle, who attempted in the 4th cent. B.C. to group animals according to such criteria as mode of reproduction and possession or lack of red blood. Aristotle's pupil Theophrastus classified plants according to their uses and methods of cultivation. Little interest was shown in classification until the 17th and 18th cent., when botanists and zoologists began to devise the modern scheme of categories. The designation of groups was based almost entirely on superficial anatomical resemblances.
Before the idea of evolution there was no impetus to show more meaningful relationships among species; the species was thought to be uniquely created and fixed in character, the only real, or natural, taxon, while the higher taxa were regarded as artificial means of organizing information. However, since anatomical resemblance is an important indication of relationship, early classification efforts resulted in a system that often approximated a natural one and that—with much modification—is still used. The most extensive work was done in the mid-18th cent. by Carolus Linnaeus, who devised the presently used system of nomenclature. As biologists came to accept the work of Charles Darwin in the second half of the 19th cent., they began to stress the significance of evolutionary relationships for classification.
Although comparative anatomy remained of foremost importance, other evidence of relationship was sought as well. Paleontology provided fossil evidence of the common ancestry of various groups; embryology provided comparisons of early development in different species, an important clue to their relationships. In the 20th cent., evidence provided by genetics and physiology became increasingly important. Recently there has been much emphasis on the use of molecular genetics in taxonomy, as in the comparison of nucleic acid sequences in the genetic makeup of organisms. Computers are increasingly used to analyze data relevant to taxonomy.
See E. Mayr, Principles of Systematic Zoology (1969); T. Savory, Animal Taxonomy (1972); H. M. Hoenigswald and L. F. Wiener, eds., Biological Metaphor and Cladistic Classification (1987); F. A. Stafleu and R. S. Cown, Taxonomic Literature: A Selective Guide to Botanical Publications and Collections (1988); N. Eldredge, Fossils: The Evolution and Extinction of Species (1991).