The Funniest Joke in Taxonomy

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In the 1700's, in the Age of Enlightenment, the Swedish botanist Linnaeus

faced a situation with plants that, if we faced it, would certainly dismay us.

There was no order in giving plants names, so one would not know where to look

if they wanted to find a plant and its description in any botanical book.

So Linnaeus gave each plant a pair of names, denoting its species and genus,

and he organized the plants that he so named in the mythological realm of Venus.

He classified plants by their sexual parts, by the arrangement of their stamens and pistils.

Thus the knowledge of plants the Linnaean order organizes and distills.

Now biologists locate all living things on the branches of a great graphic tree

that organizes those things, group by group, to illustrate their common ancestry.

Kingdom, phylum, class, and order; from these great branches all life ascends.

Then family, genus, and species denote the lesser twigs where evolution's development ends.

The names are supposed to describe the creatures according to Latin roots

and one is certain to inspire a round of raucous guffaws and hoots.

Home sapiens, yeah, Man the Wise, should make us all blush with shame

to belong to a group that tolerates having such an inappropriate name.

No, wisdom is not innate in us, it has never been our natural birthright.

We are not born into this bewildering world possessing Reason's cold clear light.

But with proper training we can fake intelligence, although you certainly can tell

that very much like the dancing bear we do it neither often nor well.


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