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Binomial nomenclature, and with it modern taxonomy, is said to have appeared with Carl Linnaeus' Systema Naturae (1758, the year during which the 10th edition of the book was published, being Year 0 of nomenclature as far as the ICZN is concerned). But how much of a leap was it from previous works in taxonomy?

Was taxonomy slowly working its way toward it, with Linnaeus' work being the very last step? Or was it indeed a monumental leap forward?

More generaly, what was the state of nomenclature before the tenth edition of Systema naturae?

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Linnean taxonomy was very much the progression and refinement of earlier taxonomic thoughts. This answer draws heavily from "Linnaeus as an Intermediary between Ancient and Modern Zoölogy; His Views on the Class Mammalia" by W. K. Gregory (1908).

Gregory notes several major figures in the history of taxonomic nomenclature before Linnaeus:

  • Aristotle (384–322 BC): In On the Parts of Animals, Aristotle began to group and classify animals by certain characteristics, such as teeth, hooves, etc. Aristotle considered the state of nomenclature in The History of Animals (Book I, part 6), where he wrote:

    In the genus that combines all viviparous quadrupeds are many species, but under no common appellation. They are only named as it were one by one, as we say man, lion, stag, horse, dog, and so on; though, by the way, there is a sort of genus that embraces all creatures that have bushy manes and bushy tails, such as the horse, the ass, the mule, the jennet, and the animals that are called Hemioni in Syria,-from their externally resembling mules, though they are not strictly of the same species. And that they are not so is proved by the fact that they mate with and breed from one another. For all these reasons, we must take animals species by species, and discuss their peculiarities severally'

  • Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603): A botanist, who in De Plantis (1583), divided plants into ten large classes based on morphology such as fruits and seeds, and then further subdivided them. He gave them monomial names.

  • John Ray (1627-1705): An English naturalist, he made important steps in taxomony. For example, he classified many plants in his publication of Historia Plantarum. Gregory describes that:

    Ray also used the term "species" in quite a Linnaean manner, as in the names Ovis laticauda, Ovis strepsiceros and Ovis domestica. In form, at least, this foreshadows the binomial system of nomenclature and the recognition of the species in general as supposedly objective reality and the unit of classification.The form of Ray's specific definitions seems, however, to imply that the term "species" in Ray's mind was often more a "differentia," or specific adjective modifying the generic concept than a fully developed substantive name, and Ray did not apparently realize the convenience of applying the binomial method of nomenclature universally."

While there were many other figures involved in the development of modern taxonomy and taxonomial nomenclature, these individuals illustrate well that Linnaeus's binomial nomenclature, while an important step, was not an enormous leap. The idea of classifying species pre-dates Aristotle, and while monomial names for species were mostly used up until the seventeenth century, Linneaus was not the first to use binomial names for species, although he was the first to do so systematically across many classes of living things.

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