Taxonomy through tales

Geetha Iyer

Ask any biology teacher about topics that students groan about in class and you are very likely to hear taxonomy topping the list. Taxonomy is the science of classifying organisms; to classify, you have to identify them and then give them a name. For animals, names have to follow the rules set by The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). This may seem a bit like “the egg or chicken story (which came first)”; in order to name them one has to identify them and to share the identity, one has to call them by a name so that one’s fellow students/colleagues know what one is trying to convey. Is your head beginning to spin? Imagine the plight of the teacher who has to get students to learn the intricacies of classification!

Carl Linneaus
Source: National Museum, Stockholm

Over the years, I have realized that stories could create a favourable atmosphere to learn topics that could otherwise confuse or bore students. Stories for teaching topics in science do not come to you in a readymade form. They lie among the important events in history which need to be woven as stories in class. It’s not very difficult. Some of the events may even give your class a good laugh. What story could you use for teaching classification in biology?

This science of taxonomy – identifying, naming, and classifying – has a very long history; and stories therefore are there for you in plenty. Students’ familiarity with the history of taxonomy resonates only with Carl Linnaeus, ‘the father of modern taxonomy.’ The story though starts much, much, earlier, to that time when Adam and Eve (or so we learn from the Bible) were given their first task – to name all the creatures found in the Garden of Eden. How did they decide on the names?

The taxonomy stories lie in the way various people – philosophers, scientists, members of religious communities, villagers, citizens – have gone about naming the diverse creatures around them. After all even students have their own names (nicknames) for their teachers. So naming is fun. But it’s serious business when it comes to providing accurate names for animals and plants and they cannot be at the whims and fancies of people, as known from history; today they have to follow set rules and regulations.

Stories for a taxonomy lesson
So this story details how some famous historical persons named the diverse organisms we see around us. Since what is learnt today is based on the way the western world has gone about providing names, let’s start with the Greek and Roman philosophers.

Source: Ludovisi Collection

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and polymath, lived between 384-322 BCE. He wrote on a wide range of topics, including classification. He observed and studied the many different organisms on Earth and proceeded to organize them in some order for further studies. His theories for classification were based on observations. He detailed hundreds of animals in his monumental work Historia Animalium. He was also the first person to attempt classifying insects. Now that’s no mean effort, for we know that insects are among the largest number of animals that live on Earth. His classification of insects based on the presence or absence of wings is recognized till today for classifying insects. But then not all those who followed him were so systematic.

Several centuries later, another philosopher jumped into the fray to detail all animals present on Earth – Gaius Plinius Secundus (CE 23/24 – CE 79), the Roman philosopher, known famously as Pliny the Elder. Soldier, lawyer, naturalist, and writer, he wanted to record everything that existed. His most famous work is the 37 volumes of encyclopedia on natural history known as Historia Naturalis. And insects were among the ones he recorded. In the 11th volume1, he gives his views on insects and attempts to group them. In his desire to describe every insect on Earth, he did not pay attention to detail like Aristotle. So we find some amusing statements. Caterpillars, according to him, originated from dew on radish leaves (2Berenbaum, 1995); grasshoppers have neither a mouth nor an outlet for food. Whereas Aristotle used a single character to classify insects, Pliny the Elder’s classification was more a confusion. Despite the inaccuracies, however, he was considered an authority and for the next 1400 years, quoted on matters of natural history.

Pliny the Elder

In CE 1230, a French Philosopher, Bartholomaeus Anglicus, compiled 12 volumes of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Properties of Things”), an ambitious work to describe everything in the universe. Unlike Pliny the Elder, and more like Aristotle, he based his classification of creatures on the principle of motion. Naturally, there were some hilarious conclusions. In his volume 12, which is a discussion of air, he writes about all flying things. So birds and flying insects are classified to be similar. According to him, the locust was a bird. Although bees fly, they have many feet and scuttle about on the ground. Hence he said that they should be grouped with land animals.

The word ‘bug’ makes its presence during the era of Bartholomaeus, and referred to a ghost or hobgoblin, to anything difficult to see or unpleasant (2Berenbaum, 1995). Hilarious as this may sound, we must not forget that even today, humans use the word ‘bug’ to refer to anything that is unpleasant or creepy crawly – from worms, spiders, insects to millipedes, centipedes, and molluscs.

Who was the earliest taxonomist?
Taxonomy, as it is taught today, evolved from the history of the Western world.3 Shen Nung, a legendary Emperor of China (3000 BCE) who introduced acupuncture was revered as the father of Chinese medicine. He is supposed to have tasted hundreds of herbs to test their medicinal value and produced a pharmacopoeia called Divine Husbandman’s Materia Medica. It detailed around 365 medicines derived from plants, animals, and minerals. He died due to an overdose of a toxic tasting of a herb extract. He was probably the earliest taxonomist, but modern day writers generally recognize Aristotle as the father of taxonomy and so the story starts with him.

Image: Annina Breen

A fun activity
Let’s pause and reflect: If we were the first creations of God – like Adam and Eve – and asked to name all creatures around us, what names would we have given them?

Set this task for your class. Divide them into groups and ask them to imagine they are Adams and Eves. The task is to name any five creatures they see around them. They must forget that the creatures have names. Imagine that they do not have names. What would they call them? What names would they give these creatures? Why? What would Eve have called that animal we know as a frog? Or a cockroach? A bird? This is just a fun activity. Spend a few minutes allowing students to tell you how they came up with the names. The process they used will be useful to teach later. Don’t spend too much time, as you will come up with these and other questions later as you proceed with the topic.

Taking the topic forward
Follow the activity by giving them a short document to read – on how taxonomists have named the same creatures they have already given names to. Point to the two names that every creature has: the first name is known as the ‘Genus’ name and the second, the ‘Species’ name (which is its accurate identity). This system of naming any animal or plant with two names is called the binomial nomenclature. For e.g., humans are scientifically known as Homo sapiens. The house sparrow is called Passer domesticus.

The story of taxonomy would be incomplete without mentioning some of the ludicrous ways in which species were named before Carl Linnaeus (father of modern taxonomy) established the binomial classification system. For e.g., when microscopes began to be used, investigators could observe greater details of insects, so names no longer remained simple as investigators tried to include all features they saw into naming the creatures. A species of butterfly was named, Papilio media alis pronis praefertim interioribus maculis oblongis argenteis perebelle depictis (2Berenbaum, 1995).

I hope I have made a case for not complaining about learning the shortened binomial nomenclature and taxonomy made much simpler and logical by Linnaeus. Make your learning easy and use this acronym to remember the levels of hierarchy in taxonomy – Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species: Do Kings Play Chess On Fine Grain Sand?

History is replete with events that would be eye-openers for us. Did you know that it was Jagadish Chandra Bose and not Marconi who set up the world’s first functioning wireless system? Or that Marconi, used Bose’s radio receiver for testing his wireless transmission, without acknowledging or giving Bose any credit? Or that Watson and Crick actually stole Rosalind’s work to figure out the DNA structure? Stories facilitate learning that goes beyond just facts and figures. They make learning science very interesting while also providing a perspective on human behaviour.


  1. Pliny the Elder, The Natural History Book XI. The Various kinds of Insects.
  2. Bugs In the System, Insects and Their Impact on Human Affairs by May R.Berenbaum. Helix Books. 1995.
  3. Shen Nung

The author is a consultant for science and environment education. She can be reached at

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