Why We Use Latin for Taxonomy

We have a lot of species on earth, about 8.7 million plant and animal species is the latest estimate.  Some think if you add in things such as lichens, mushrooms and bacteria the total number of all living things would be closer to 11.3 million species.  In scientific terms, ‘a heck of a lot’.

How do we keep all this organized in a way we can better understand and study the diversity of life? This is where taxonomy comes in.  Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, is regarded as the father of taxonomy.  Carl developed a system known as Linnaean taxonomy in which organisms could be categorized.  He also developed the scientific binomial nomenclature for naming organisms using Latin which we still use today. Why Latin? Using Latin was clever because people from different countries using different languages can communicate accurately as to a specific species without confusion.

Carl Linnaeus
Carl Linnaeus

In 1735 Linnaeus published Systema Naturae, the tenth edition of this book was published in 1758 and that edition is considered the starting point of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.

Now here is the interesting thing about Carl’s taxonomy, it’s frozen in time, there is no before and there is no after. Carl recognized the need to have a systematic method of classification for plant and animal life so we can be organized about it all and kudos to him for coming up with his system.  At the time he assumed species did not evolve so there was no need to show lineage. He explicitly recognized the hierarchical nature of species relationships, but still viewed species as fixed according to a divine plan.

The expansion of Linnaeus’s taxonomy system to include lineage became necessary once Paleontologists and Paleoanthropologists (though not called that at the time) started to discover fossils like dinosaurs.  Then suddenly it dawned on people, hey evolution.

Erasmus Darwin
Erasmus Darwin

A lot of people think that Charles Darwin came up with the theory of evolution but several individuals were postulating the idea before him, even going back to ancient Greece and pre-Socratic times. In 1794 Erasmus Darwin, a renowned English physician and Charles Darwin’s grandfather, penned a work titled ‘Zoonomia’.  In it he theorizes and describes one of the first modern theories on animal evolution.  However, Charles Darwin did bring the concept of evolution and its processes to the masses with his 1859 book “On the Origin of Species”.

Quote by Charles Darwin

With the acceptance of evolution as a scientific fact the Linnaean system has progressed to a system of modern biological classification based on the evolutionary relationships between organisms, both living and extinct.

Anthropology is concerned with man and his evolutionary legacy.  In Linnaean taxonomy, using the binomial nomenclature to classify modern man it is written as Homo sapiens.  With binomial nomenclature the first word is always capitalized and the second word is not.  A short hand would be to write H. sapiens. So, you commonly see H. neanderthalensis written for Neanderthals, etc. 

Also, the first word designates the genus and the second word designates the species. Each genus may have multiple or even several species.   

Typically, in secondary education you get a seven-point taxonomy for Modern Man. 

1.  Kingdom – Animalia
2.  Phylum – Chordata
3.  Class – Mammalia
4.  Order – Primates
5.  Family – Hominidae
6.  Genus – Homo
7.  Species - sapiens

However, given the great diversity of life now and through the ages a more expanded taxonomy for scientific study was developed. Here is the full taxonomy for modern man.  

     1  Kingdom - Animalia

  1. Subkingdom - Eumetazoa
  2. Clade - Bilateria
  3. Clade - Nephrozoa
  4. Superphylum - Deuterostomia
  5. Phylum - Chordata
  6. Clade - Craniata
  7. Subphylum - Vertebrata
  8. Infraphylum - Gnathostomata
  9. Clade - Eugnathostomata
  10. Clade - Teleostomi
  11. Superclass - Tetrapoda
  12. Clade - Reptiliomorpha
  13. Clade - Amiota
  14. Clade - Synapsida
  15. Clade - Mammaliaformes
  16. Class - Mammalia
  17. Clade - Eutheria
  18. Infraclass - Placentalia
  19. Clade - Exafroplacentalia
  20. Magnorder- Boreoeutheria
  21. Superorder - Euarchontoglires
  22. Grandorder - Euarchonta
  23. Miorder - Primatomorpha
  24. Order - Primates
  25. Suborder - Haplorhini
  26. Infraorder - Simiformes
  27. Pavorder - Catarrhini
  28. Superfamily - Hominoidea
  29. Family - Hominidae
  30. Subfamily - Homininae
  31. Tribe – Hominini
  32. Sub Tribe - Homininia
  33. Genus - Homo
  34. Species - sapiens
  35. Subspecies - sapiens sapiens

Don't worry I am not going to test you on this.  


If you look at the above taxonomy, the human legacy starts at number 33 which is classified as the Sub Tribe - Homininia. For humans this is when the first species in our human lineage appeared after the split with our last common ancestor between us and the chimpanzee.  Every species in the human legacy is called a hominin.

If you would really  like to get in the weeds on our tribal classification this is a great article. 


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