Folk Systematics to Scientific Systematics

An inclination to categorize has always been a part of human nature. With regard to animals and plants, this process is known as systematics. Studies of several "primitive" societies that exist relatively unchanged today indicate their forebearers developed accurate biological classification systems and common organizing principles. Organisms are placed in naturally occurring groupings, with each group having easily recognized characteristics distinguishable from characteristics of other groups (what is now referred to as a natural system of classification). These groupings are further merged into several increasingly larger units arranged in a hierarchical order. The extent to which individual genera or species are named depends on the importance of the animals to that society.

Within each society studied, the number of animal taxa recognized (with an average of 390) was fewer than the number of plant taxa (with an average of 520); the number of plant taxa recognized was higher in agricultural societies. Throughout history, prior to the Renaissance, the number of taxa recognized remained relatively constant. Western systematics did not evolve out of these primitive classification schemes, however, because the schemes of the primitive groups studied were unknown to the ancient Greeks, who developed the foundations of modern Western systematics independently. Medieval European systematics, in turn, was derived primarily from the work of Aristotle for animals, Dioscorides for medicinal plants, and Theophrastus for all other plants.

This classification work was considered inadequate during the early Renaissance and afterward when an increasing number of new species were discovered. In 1700, the French botanist, Joseph P. de Tournefort, published a botanical list of 698 genera, not much more than the average number of genera recognized by primitive societies and the Greeks. Within a half century, however, this number almost doubled with Linnaeus' description of 1,239 genera in 1764.

Carolus Linnaeus (Carl von Linné, 1707-1778) built upon the folk systematics of Europe as it existed in the first half of the eighteenth century, but with substantial improvements, including the use of binomial nomenclature (using a genus and species to identify each distinct organism). This replaced the polynomial nomenclature (where the name of each organism

This systematic and ecological knowledge was transmitted through folklore and folk rituals, which both aided and impeded the progress of these societies. Although folklore and rituals contained practical information about animals, plants, and the environment, they also perpetuated myths. Fact and fiction frequently merged into an inseparable body of lore, with religion, magic, medicine, and science indistinguishable. Similarly, humans, nature, and the gods were one interdependent whole. Nevertheless, this rudimentary base of knowledge was as rational and scientific as it could have been at the time and provided preliterate populations with a way of looking at, analyzing, and understanding a difficult-to-comprehend world.9,17-19

Social complexity increased, as did intellectual and technological solutions to the increasingly complex problems faced by these societies. As rudimentary knowledge expanded beyond simple natural curiosity and need-to-know, humans began to progress as a unique species and began

Number of Animal and Planta Generic Taxa Discerned by Various Societies

Animals

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