The name is the least important part

Names were one of the first uses of language. Say banana and every English speaking person can conjure up an image of the fruit. So why is the name not the most important part?

Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), the “father of modern taxonomy”, was a Swedish botanist, zoologist, and physician who formalised the modern system of naming organisms.

Although what we now call binomial nomenclature was partially developed by Gaspard and Johann Bauhin almost 200 years earlier, Linnaeus was the first to use it consistently. 

Linnaeus took long, complex names, such as “Physalis annua ramosissima, ramis ankylosis glabris, foliis dentato-serratis“, and condensed them into “binomials”, composed of the generic name (genus), followed by a specific epithet.

The genus and the epithet combine into the name of the species. 

The simplified species name Physalis angulata is a herbaceous, annual plant belonging to the nightshade family Solanaceae with the common name Wild Gooseberry.

Physalis angulata 

Binomials became a label to refer to the species that was also the basis of a simple and orderly classification system.

Linnaeus published these new names and classifications in a book. The first edition of Systema Naturae published in 1735 was just 12 pages, but by the time it reached its 10th edition in 1758, it classified 4,400 species of animals and 7,700 species of plants. 

Work on the 12th edition became so complex that Linnaeus needed a new invention—the index card—to track classifications. 

Today, 250 years later, taxonomists still use binomials to give each species a formal scientific name for some 1.9 million species to date—too many species for one book.

But there is still a lot of work left to do. 

The task is daunting, and periodically there are calls for more resources and expertise to tackle the challenge like this one from the Australian Academy of Science asking for $824m to complete the catalogue of species in Australia.

How many species are on earth?

The exact number of species left to describe is unknown but could be as many as 9 million, give or take. 

The truth is that nobody knows exactly; not even the experts. They are reduced to educated guesses.

It is interesting that we still don’t know how many species are on the planet. 

It makes lamenting the loss of species harder given that there might be a dozen disappearing nameless for every named species that go extinct.

Most of the cute, cuddly and feathered creatures are described, of course, along with most plant species. It’s the insects, non-insect invertebrates and the micro-organisms that need the naming work.

I’m guessing most people will know at least one Latin name for a species – Panthera leo, Canis familiaris, Pan troglodytes, Orcinus orca, Homo sapiens, Platyarthrus hoffmannseggi… well, maybe not the last one, a tiny woodlouse that lives in ants nests.

the woodlouse Platyarthrus hoffmannseggi Photo by Andy Murray

But we can be sure that no one person knows all 1.9 million.

Do we need the names?

The reasons for naming species are that names are unique, with each type of organism having only one scientific name. A unique name helps avoid confusion created by multiple common names, and everyone anywhere can know the scientific name because they are in Latin, standardised, and accepted universally. 

Each species name comes with a formal description tagged to a curated specimen, the type specimen. These descriptions are the raw material for classification and for understanding evolutionary relations among species.

The question is, do we need to know names?

Chris was out on a property the other week helping a client improve the vegetation on their land. Two days of planting tube stock is a lot of work and the owners, a retired couple who had spent careers as public servants, were very grateful. 

 “Thank you for being here for two days,” they said. “We have learnt so much from you people. It’s been great”

I’ll let Chris take up the story.

“One of the things I said to her as we stood talking about this and that plant, giving names away like confetti, and we’re looking at a plant that’s covered in fruit, a cheese tree. 

So we’re talking about that and I said ‘look, you know, this is good stuff because really one of the least interesting things in here is the names of all the plants’. 

She looked a little bemused so I said, ‘really the most important things here about how it functions. You know, one of the things we’ve done is put Lomandra on your stream because it’s really unstable and that can help hold onto the banks, it’s about what we get from it. It’s about how it functions. That seed there will be eaten and spread by something and provide nourishment and it’ll move the seed around and that’s what we want. The cogs and wheels that turn rather than the names of the cogs and wheels’. 

She got it straight away. She said, ‘well that makes terrific sense. Yeah, I get that.’”

It is often the case that people who have come to land management or farming from another career get ideas like this easier than those brought up with all the conventions.

What Chris said though, was critical even if it made Linneaus turn in his grave.

Names are helpful, but the function is critical.

Binomial nomenclature does wonders for classifying and naming entities, especially species, but it doesn’t capture function.

What sustainably FED suggests…

We are in favour of inventories of biodiversity, and that means naming entities, usually species.

Knowing names through formal taxonomy is very useful for understanding evolution, the distribution of organisms, who hangs around with who, and the rules that allow assemblages of species to gather and remain stable.

It’s just that function has to be part of that description. 

Try as we might, the binomial does not capture functions.

Hero image modified from painting Carl von Linné, Alexander Roslin, 1775 (oil on canvas, Gripsholm Castle)


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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