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Paradigms in biological classification (1707–2007): Has anything really changed?

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Efforts of humans to understand the living world have involved observing and describing life forms, followed by interpreting that information and ordering it hierarchically for efficient storage, retrieval, and prediction. All human societies have done this. In an historical context, the Greeks and Romans emphasized observations. In the Age of the Herbalists (1470–1670), observations were refined, descriptions were elaborated, and botanical illustrations were perfected to complement the descriptions. The early classifiers emphasized development of an hierarchy of information. Linnaeus continued this trend and made the hierarchy more stable and consistent, but he relied mainly on his sexual system of classification, which greatly reduced the predictive quality of the constructed classifications. Jussieu in the late 18th century and others in the early 19th century focused more on increasing the information content of classifications. Darwin had little impact on observation, description, and ordering of information about organisms, but he provided a new interpretation of mechanisms for explaining relationships. Phenetics and cladistics stressed quantitative observations and descriptions, the latter also emphasizing evolutionary relationships. A paradigm is a way of conceptualizing about some portion of the world, i.e., a philosophical or theoretical framework. During this long period of more than two millennia, therefore, obviously no paradigm shift has occurred regarding observation and description of diversity. As evolutionary insights are not needed for the process of classification, these can only relate to the interpretation of relationships. Post-Darwinian phylogenetic systems interpreted the hierarchy of nature in evolutionary terms, and this has continued to the present day. From a broad perspective, therefore, the paradigm of classification in systematic biology has also never really changed. Different approaches simply reflect varying attempts to observe, describe, and order information about organisms.


Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Systematic and Evolutionary Botany, Institute of Botany, University of Vienna, Rennweg 14, 1030 Vienna, Austria

Publication date: February 1, 2009


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