Philosophy of Biological Classification


Biological classification is natural in that all cultures classify life, and humans acquire classifications as they learn the general terms in a language. This tendency is reflected in the Linnaean hierarchy that has dominated biological classification for the last several centuries. Even as this hierarchy has become entrenched though, there are enduring disputes about biological classification. First is metaphysical, the nature of biological categories. Are they natural kinds, historical kinds or historical individuals? Second are the theoretical bases and operational procedures. What should a biological classification represent, and how should it be constructed? Third are the nature and value of tree thinking, and the implications that has for the formal classificatory framework. If a classification is to represent the evolutionary tree in all its complexity, it is not clear that the Linnaean hierarchy and its nomenclature will be adequate.

Key Concepts:

  • The theoretical basis of a classification is what it represents.

  • The formal structure of a classification involves the organisation of the categories.

  • The operational procedures of a classification are the rules for generating the classification.

  • An evolutionary tree is a branching diagram that represents at minimum the branching order of evolution.

  • Nomenclature is the naming system for the categories in a classification.

Keywords: biological classification; essentialism; evolutionary systematics; cladistics; phylogenetic systematics; nomenclature

Figure 1.

Linnaeus – Regnum Animale (1735).

Figure 2.

Phylogenetic groups.



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Further Reading

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Wiley EO (2011) Phylogenetics: The Theory and Practice of Phylogenetic Systematics. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell.

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Richards, Richard A(Sep 2014) Philosophy of Biological Classification. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0021999.pub2]