Systematics: Definition & History

Instructor: Sarah Phenix
In this lesson we will explore the biological term 'systematics'; what it means, what purpose it serves in understanding the world around us, and the historical development of this key scientific tool.

What is Systematics?

If you wanted to describe your bedroom to someone, you probably wouldn't describe each individual thing; that would take forever. Instead, you'd probably simplify it all by grouping stuff into categories like books, toys, clothes, pictures, etc. Imagine trying to describe a city without using categories like automobiles, people, buildings, and roads?

Now try to imagine a scientist having no way to group all the living things on the planet! That's what systematics is for. In biology, systematics is the study and classification of living things; in other words, grouping organisms based on a set of rules (or system). But what does that actually mean and where did this process come from?

Two Kinds of Systematics

Systematics can be divided into two closely related and overlapping levels of classification: taxonomic (known as the Linnaean System) and phylogenetic.

Taxonomic classifications group living things together based on shared traits - usually what they look like or what their bodies do. For example, animals that lay eggs and have scales we call reptiles, and animals that have live births and have fur or hair we call mammals. More specifically, all humans share the same characteristics and so belong to a group, or taxon, of the genus Homo, and species sapien.

Phylogenetic classifications use the taxonomic names, but further group organisms by how evolutionarily related they are to one another. By looking at each organism's genes, we know that gorillas (taxonomic term), say, are more closely related to humans than they are to cockroaches. It's sort of like if you were to introduce someone to a group of people, you might start with their names (taxonomic classification), and then describe who's a sister, uncle, friend, or total stranger (phylogeny).

Phylogenetic Tree of Vertebrates

Where would biologists be without a universal way of grouping organisms? Talk about chaos! Let's take a look at the gentleman we have to thank for this invaluable tool, Carl Linnæus (also known as Carl von Linné).

Carl Linnæus- Systematics as Scientia

Carl Linnæus (1707-1778) was a Swedish botanist, zoologist, and physician regarded in modern science as the 'father of taxonomy'. Why is this? Well, he was the first to consistently use a system of classification (taxonomy) to categorize organisms based on shared features. His strict methodology that was both simple and repeatable gave scientific validity to the field of classification.

Carl Linnaeus, Father of Modern Systematics
Carl Linnæus

Prior to Linnæus's groundbreaking publication, Systema Naturae in 1758, the study of living organisms was considered historia naturalis (natural history) but not a scientia (science) of its own. Science at that time tended to revolve around making observations about the natural world for medicinal purposes.

It's true that the notion of classifying organisms predated Linnaeus's work- one of the earliest recorded forms of classification appears in the Persian texts called Avesta (c. 600-300 BCE), which classified animals into 'domestic and useful', 'wild and not amenable to domestication', or 'aquatic'. Linnaean taxonomy was groundbreaking because it instituted a simple yet explicit naming system, called binomial naming (or two names), that was based on a hierarchy; one general name for the group (genus) and one specific name for the subgroup (species).

At the time, polynomial naming systems (or many names) were all the rage but they tended to be ungainly. Polynomial names were composed of a single generic name and then several specific names resulting in extremely long and unwieldy terms. For example, the hoary plantain (a meadow dwelling flowering plant not to be confused with a banana-like plantain) was known as Plantago foliis ovato-lanceolatus pubescentibus, spica cylindrica, scapo tereti in the polynomial format (what a mouthfull!) whereas the Linnaean binomial format reduced the name to Plantago media (so much easier!).

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