Scientific Names

In a serious study of animals it is necessary to employ scientific names. Common names which, like nicknames or pet names, may have only a limited local application, do not invariably lead to accuracy in identification. Sailors are not initiated into life on the deep until they can command a vocabulary of technical terms that are strange to the landsman. Even baseball fans have a lingo all their own which corresponds to the scientific terminology that the biologist finds not only useful but indispensable.

It is noteworthy that the first recorded task ever done by man is reported in Genesis 2:20, “and Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every living beast of the field.” So Taxonomy is the first and most ancient of all sciences!

The great Swedish naturalist Linne (1707-1778), who introduced into biology a complete system of nomenclature, thereby raised biology from an inferior position as an adjunct of medicine to the dignity of a separate science simply by paving the way with an adequate biological terminology. He employed Latin mostly in making his scientific names. This was advisable since Latin is a “dead language,” no longer subjected to the changes in form and meaning to which any spoken language is liable. Latin, moreover, came the nearest to being the fundamental universal language of educated peoples of all tongues. Faithfully christening all the animals and plants known to science in his day with a scientific name, Linne even included himself so that he is generally known by the Latin name of Linnaeus.

A complete scientific name consists of three parts, as follows: the name of the genus to which the animal belongs; the name of the species; and the name of the namer, or godfather, who does the christening. In all languages, therefore, Felis domestica Linn, is the proper scientific name for every common house cat, because these cats belong to the genus Felis, to the species domestica, and were so named in the first place by Linne.

When the same kind of an animal is given two or more scientific names independently and unawaredly, as frequently occurs, the confusion is remedied by adopting the first name assigned, if it can be determined, in accordance with the “law of priority.”

In any scientific name the genus is invariably written with a capital letter and the species with a small letter, although it is permissible sometimes, when a species is named in honor of a person or place, to employ a capital letter. Both generic and specific names are always printed in italics. According to common practice the name of the namer, which is principally useful in determining priority in doubtful cases, is frequently omitted.

Every student of biology who sets out in earnest to excel, must conquer any childish aversion he may have for the imaginary terrors of unfamiliar scientific names and should acquire, as soon as possible, facility in the use of these indispensable tools of his trade.