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The Linnaean system: 1735-1758

The Swenish botanist Carl von Linné, or in the Latin version of his name Linnaeus, is an obsessive classifier. Outside his own field of natural history he tries his hand at organizing a system of minerals and even of diseases. But his fame derives from his having finally put in place, at the end of an experimental period lasting nearly two centuries, the method of classification in the plant and animal kingdoms which still prevails today.

In 1735 Linnaeus publishes Systema naturae (System of nature), in which he proposes a system capable of classifying all living things. It is based on the twin categories genus and species, pioneered by Bauhin and developed by John Ray.

Linnaeus begins his task by defining the genera into which the species of plants will be divided (Genera plantarum 1737). Next, over a much longer period, he assigns some 6000 species of plants to their appropriate genera (Species plantarum 1753). He follows this with an updated edition of the Genera in 1754.

Linnaeus' criterion for grouping plants, by the number of their stamens and pistils, has proved misleading and has been revised. But his version of the Binomial system survives intact, applying to animals as effectively as to plants. He proposes the use of genus and species to classify animals in the tenth edition of Systema naturae (1758), listing 4236 species as a preliminary contribution.

Cuvier and paleontology: 1812

William Smith in the late 18th century has used the evidence of fossils in rock strata for the advancement of geology. Georges Cuvier studies the fossils for their own sake, and in doing so founds the science of palaeontology.

His researches concentrate on the fossils of mammals and reptiles found in rocks in the Paris region, with special emphasis on extinct mammals of the tertiary period. His results are published in 1812 in the four volumes of Recherches sur les ossements fossiles des quadrupèdes (Researchs on the fossil bones of quadrupeds).

The discoveries revealed in this pioneering work provide the basis for subsequent theories of evolution, though they do not suggest that explanation to Cuvier himself. Confronted by the remains of extinct species, he concludes that the earth has gone through a series of cycles (which he calls 'revolutions'), corresponding to the observable Geological periods.

Each revolution, he believes, ends in some catastrophe of nature which destroys most of the existing fauna and flora. The survivors are joined by fresh species resulting from a new bout of creation. Subsequent researches by others, unearthing transitional fossils, give weight to the argument for a more gradual or evolutionary process.

This History is as yet incomplete.

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