The Linnaean Endeavor
Beginning with the works of Aristotle and Theophrastus in the third and fourth centuries B.C.E., the 2000-year rise of Western systematics has been closely involved with developments in agriculture, animal husbandry, medicine and materials sciences, providing a framework in which organisms have been accounted for with names, distinguishing qualities, and useful classifications. Essentially modern methods in systematics were codified by Carolus Linnaeus a quarter millennium ago with the publication of Species Planetarium in 1753 and of the 10th edition of Systema Naturae in 1758, these essential works respectively the bases for the nomenclatural starting dates of priority for most scientific plant and animal names.
The great Linnaean Endeavor—being the discovery, naming and cataloging of the world's biota—has provided a comprehensive matrix in which genetic resources that affect mankind are rendered accessible to study, use and control. Evolution-based classifications provide a predictive foundation for evaluating and dealing with the effects of major crises during the next decades. Such crises include: the population explosion (increase from 3 to 6 billion since 1960), a major global extinction event (involving most lifeforms), ozone depletion (deleterious effects of ultraviolet, especially on crops), environmental destruction, global warming (continent-wide vegetational changes, ocean rising, dumping of liquefied excess carbon dioxide into the seas), invasions of exotic flora and fauna, including plant and animal diseases (like HIV), and population explosions of humans and of organisms affected by them. Our biological collections represent a vast genetic library that provide essential clues for developing the biotechnology and making the political decisions needed to address ever-new pressures on an increasingly less flexible world, including replacing present non-renewable resources with renewable substitutes.
Given the economic and scientific importance that efforts to name, categorize and understand the world's biota have had during the past 2000 years, and recognizing the upcoming anniversary of 250 years of modern systematics, it seems appropriate and valuable to publicize our work, educate the public, and seek required support in this special context.
It is especially pertinent that in the next 10 years systematics will be thoroughly computerized and available over the Web to the public, addressing every level of expertise. With careful attention to long-term accessibility, new species descriptions will almost certainly be acceptably publishable on the Web. After a quarter millennium of effort, modern systematics is in the midst of an informational revolution that can, if we capitalize on it, push the Linnaean Endeavor forward at a far greater pace than ever before, and publicly demonstrate that good work.
Systematics-oriented institutions should consider, if they have not already done so, plans for building on the 250-year anniversaries of modern plant and animal systematics in 2003 and 2008 as opportunities for investment in a revamped public identity.
In particular, professional meetings might be considered as opportunities for the re-evaluation of systematics over past 250 years (at least), including past and future economic contributions, possible global crisis mitigation, useful and heuristic scientific advances, and quality-of-life enhancements, culminating in a rededication and replotting of our goals for the next 250 years.