The earliest known system of classification is that of Aristotle, who attempted in the 4th cent. B.C. to group animals according to such criteria as mode of reproduction and possession or lack of red blood. Aristotle's pupil Theophrastus classified plants according to their uses and methods of cultivation. Little interest was shown in classification until the 17th and 18th cent., when botanists and zoologists began to devise the modern scheme of categories. The designation of groups was based almost entirely on superficial anatomical resemblances.
Before the idea of evolution there was no impetus to show more meaningful relationships among species; the species was thought to be uniquely created and fixed in character, the only real, or natural, taxon, while the higher taxa were regarded as artificial means of organizing information. However, since anatomical resemblance is an important indication of relationship, early classification efforts resulted in a system that often approximated a natural one and that—with much modification—is still used. The most extensive work was done in the mid-18th cent. by Carolus Linnaeus, who devised the presently used system of nomenclature. As biologists came to accept the work of Charles Darwin in the second half of the 19th cent., they began to stress the significance of evolutionary relationships for classification.
Although comparative anatomy remained of foremost importance, other evidence of relationship was sought as well. Paleontology provided fossil evidence of the common ancestry of various groups; embryology provided comparisons of early development in different species, an important clue to their relationships. In the 20th cent., evidence provided by genetics and physiology became increasingly important. Recently there has been much emphasis on the use of molecular genetics in taxonomy, as in the comparison of nucleic acid sequences in the genetic makeup of organisms. Computers are increasingly used to analyze data relevant to taxonomy.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.