Paleonet: Did Linnaeus get it wrong?

Joseph Botting acutipuerilis at
Sun May 27 06:39:38 GMT 2018

Wrong? Not really... because he was answering a different question. Linnaeus was providing a classification of the array of divine creation, and it had nothing to do with evolutionary descent. 

Now, of course, we're using his classification for an evolutionary purpose, and there are places where it really doesn't work. Forget intergrading species; go back to the Cambrian, and there will inevitably be members of one species that eventually gave rise to different phyla; the same continuity issues work there. In Linnaeus' world, as you go further up the hierarchy, taxa are defined to get more different. In reality, as you go further back down the tree, distant lineages get more similar.
The question isn't whether Linnaeus was wrong. It's whether there are any better options available. For all its problems, Linnaean classification is simple, economical, and can generally be applied in the fossil record, unless that record becomes so rich as to break down the divisions. I once explored methods of getting a workable way to deal with taxonomic continua, but it was a nightmare to apply in practice (luckily I never tried to publish this!). Nigel Hughes actually did propose a different, more flexible but much more complex system for spores, but this has never taken off (I presume because it's so laborious to apply!). The point of a classification is to provide labels within a framework, and what we have does succeed most of the time. 
    If we understand the drawbacks of the system, the glitches aren't too much of a problem, but I've no doubt that it has embedded some preconceptions into our minds when it comes to our expectations. For example, especially if you're a biologist or you work on young fossils, ask yourself what the last common ancestor of your favourite phylum and its sister group would have looked like. Now ask yourself whether that image is influenced by an assumption of bauplans remaining inviolate. If not, great. If yes, then think of it as something hard-wired into our classification that we need to be aware of.

I'm sure there will be lots of different views here, and am just waiting for the PhyloCode to make an appearance..!


      From: John Laurie <john.r.laurie at>
 To: paleonet at 
 Sent: Sunday, 27 May 2018, 14:02
 Subject: Paleonet: Did Linnaeus get it wrong?
Well, did he?
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