Linnaean Classification and the Kinds (Research Article)

Linnaean Classification and the Kinds (Research Article)

Man has classified animals since the Garden of Eden. Adam’s first job was to classify the animals.  “And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.[1]” Adam was the world’s first taxonomist.  He spent part of the sixth day naming the birds and the beasts. While this was a much easier job than it would have be today, since variation had not had time to occur, it still would have taken him some time to name all of them.

Throughout history, man has followed Adam’s example and attempted to classify the world around him into groups. One of the first to do so was the Greek philosopher and naturalist Aristotle. Aristotle grouped living things into plants and animals, with several subgroupings.  He wrote several works on animals which included a discussion of their history[2]. Aristotle’s classification system, as rough as it was, like many of his other ideas, persisted well into the next century. Aristotle’s classification was not overturned until the 1700s.

The modern classification system used in science today is based strongly on the work of Swedish botanists Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus was a Christian who was passionate about science, even as a child, preferring to spend time outside finding plants over studying. This aptitude was encouraged by both of his parents, particularly his father, as both were avid amateur botanists[3].  Despite this aptitude Linnaeus was predestined to follow his father into the ministry.  This changed when he entered what can be described in modern vernacular as a Bible college. Linnaeus was a poor student in everything but math and physics.  Without the intervention of a local doctor and teacher, Linnaeus would have been sent home. Instead, he did complete school and undertook a study of medicine.

When Linnaeus reached Uppsala, where he would spend most of his life teaching, he rapidly was recognized at the university for his botanical knowledge. He was actually appointed a professor of botany while still a student[4]! After obtaining his medical degree in Holland, Linnaeus returned to Sweden and, while practicing medicine, helped found the Swedish Academy of Sciences and served as its first president.  However, it was during his time in Holland that he published many of his works.

The Linnaean classification system was brilliantly simple. Though he did borrow from others in forming his system, much of it was his alone.  Linnaeus postulated, for example, that plants could be grouped by their reproductive organs and proceeded to do so. He called these groupings “classes”.  Below the classes, Linnaeus built a group called the “genus”. Multiple genera could be placed in a class. Below the genus, Linnaeus created a group he called “species.” As mentioned previously, species is Latin for “kind”. Linnaeus held to a form of fixity of species, only because he considered the species to be the biblical kind. In his later years, this view changed as he became aware of hybridization between species.

In naming species, Linnaeus solved a significant problem in biology.  Previously, living things had been given Latin names that were very descriptive, but were too long for common use.  Linnaeus fixed that. He kept the names in Latin, the language of science at the time, but cut the names down to two word; the genus and species. This is referred to today as binomial nomenclature. Every creature on earth is named using this system. For example, the Lion in the Linnaean system is called Panthera leo. Linnaeus applied this classification to man as well, christening him Homo sapiens, a name which remains to this day.

While Linnaean classification has been expanded over the years, the basic framework has remained the same.  New levels have been introduced, but the binomial nomenclature has remained. As it stands currently, modern taxonomy consists of Domains as the top level, followed by Kingdoms, Phylums, Classes, Orders, Families, Genera, and Species, which each successive level getting more specific. Most, if not all of the levels, are supplemented with prefixes in some cases, creating bridges between each of the levels.

The Modern Classification System

 Classification is incredibly useful and something we do naturally by default.  We group things together naturally, even things outside the natural world. We classify houses by their architect, appliances by their type, music by its style and so on.  It is only natural then that when humans view nature as something to be classified and compartmentalized.  This was the basis of all classification systems, beginning with Adam’s in the Garden of Eden.

Foundationally, the Linnaean classification system was a split system. Linnaeus used reproductive organs for plants and morphology for animals. It is a system based on nature. When Darwin came along, the classification system was hijacked to imply that the structure inferred from the taxonomic structure actually existed. “…[T]he theory of evolution states that the apparent relationships of organisms in a systematic classification are real relationships, because “relationship” in such classification is not a metaphor but is actually to be ascribed to community of descent.[5]”  In other words, the structure of the classification system is actually the structure of a giant, universal family tree of all life.   While this was not the Linnaean intent, it is what classification has come to in the modern world.

Modern classification is largely dependent on a technique known as cladistics. This technique is based on the belief that speciation is the mechanism of evolution. Limitless genetic variation is assumed in this system. The process is heavily dependent on the assumption of Darwinian evolution, as even evolutionists freely admit.  “Cladistics involves few assumptions, and its scientific character is due in no small part to its reliance on but a single auxiliary premise (background knowledge) having to do with the process, namely descent with modification.[6]”  Obviously, evolution is woven into the fabric of cladistics, and therefore, indirectly, modern taxonomy. Interestingly, the man who founded cladistics was the same man who proposed the Hennigian species concept, Willi Hennig, a German scientist who fought for Germany in WWII[7].

However, quite a few evolutionists want to somehow separate cladistics from evolution. They recognize that, if evolution is assumed as a basis for cladistics, then cladistics cannot provide evidence for evolution. That would be logically circular.  This is a lengthy quote, but it illustrates their line of thought quite well.

“The process of phylogeny that explains the hierarchical patterns discovered by systematics is one of the most profound empirical theories of modern science. I have not claimed that macroevolution is poorly corroborated and therefore not intersubjectively plausible (macroevolution is one of my personal favorite theories, and I teach my undergraduate students that it is “true”). Instead, my argument is that the theory of macroevolution is corroborated by evidence from systematics (i.e., comparative anatomy, paleontology, biogeography, and more, recently, comparative biochemistry). Therefore, the a priori assumption of descent with modification fails to provide independent ontological support for systematics. If “the background knowledge the bearing of descent with modification” underlying cladistics is not testable by independent means, it would seem to more a metaphysical First Principle like vitalism or orthogenesis than a component of a Popperian hypo-thetico-deductive approach.[8]

There is a lot in that quote to unpack but the idea behind it is that if cladistics is not independent of evolution, then it cannot provide evidence for evolution. The author goes so far as to admit that if macroevolution cannot be confirmed independently, that it isn’t part of science, but is instead “metaphysical”. Notice also that the author goes out of his way to ensure that his fellow evolutionists do not blackball him for heresy by professing that macroevolution is one of his favorite theories and he teaches his students that it is true. I suspect this author is aware of what happens to those who even question Darwinian dogma[9].

I would argue that this author, in an attempt to provide evidence for his view, has actually illustrated how deeply tied to evolution cladistics is.  Cladistics examines character traits and attempts to build a family tree for a given set of organisms. Some cladists in recent years have begun using genetic data either exclusively or extensively for their cladograms.  This has prompted a conflict between those who prefer a morphological approach to taxonomy, and those solely interested in genetic data[10].  However, this debate obscures the real issues in play.

As part of the squabbling over cladistic methodology, there are frequent papers responding to other authors arguing over either trivialities or methodology. In one such paper, a revealing statement was made in the conclusion.  “It is precisely this connection to the principle of common descent that insures phylogenetic systematics a central role in systematic and evolutionary biology and accounts for its ever-increasing success.[11]”  Ironically, this article is critiquing the same authors, the previous quote was using as support.  Cladistics is clearly centrally tied to the evolutionary account.

In fact, cladistics assumes evolutionary ancestry by default.  It has to, in order to work.  The whole point of cladistics is to determine relationships between organisms and groups of organisms over time by building a phylogenetic tree[12]. There are whole books written containing attempts to do a cladistic analysis on all life forms.  The method is designed to look for common ancestry.  This can be illustrated by the number of cladistic articles in the literature which attempt to determine common ancestry of separate groups[13][14][15]. Cladistics is bound up in evolution and, as such, a cladistic analysis of relationships should be largely rejected, with some exceptions. Those exceptions are limited to an analysis performed at a very low level, such as genus and family.

Incredibly, one author in arguing for a form of cladistics made a massive Freudian slip.  He admitted the evolutionary taxonomy system of Mayr, regarding the species as the unit of evolution, cannot be falsified. “The difficulties embodied in that part of evolutionary taxonomy which differs from phylogenetic systematics lead to a general lack of testability of evolutionary classifications.[16]” While this author most definitely subscribes to evolution as a whole, in attempting to promote his brand of it, he has undermined the entire theory. If evolutionary taxonomy cannot be falsified, then the species is arbitrary, not a unit of nature. Other evolutionists acknowledge this. George Gaylord Simpson, an expert on taxonomy wrote: “In the larger pattern, however, no taxa (including species) can be strictly nonarbitrary as to exclusion. One must draw a completely arbitrary line, representing a point in time, across some steadily evolving lineage and say “Here one taxon ends and another begins”. In principle, that means that an individual animal could belong to one species one instant and to another species the next instant. That is seemingly absurd, but no more so than results of other available criteria for such necessary arbitrary divisions.[17]” He is correct that it is absurd, but what he overlooks is that it also destroys evolution by speciation. If the species is arbitrary, then new species only form in the minds of scientists, not in nature, meaning true speciation cannot be the mechanism of evolution. Any new species forming is simply variation inside a unit of nature, the Biblical kind.  If speciation is not the mechanism of evolution, then the house of cards collapses.

Evolutionists could potentially counter the arbitrary nature of the species by appealing to the mechanisms of cladistics as provable, thus explaining the variation in nature.  However, in the in the same collection of essays that admitted evolutionary taxonomy was untestable, another article unwittingly shredded this possibility. “Probably no phylogenetic cladogram, no matter how it is constructed, can be totally “proved” or “falsified.”[18]” This is an incredible statement because it essentially admits what creationists have been saying for decades. Evolutionary relationships, which are what cladograms are constructed to find, are unproven and unprovable. Because being falsifiable is a key part of the scientific method, this author has just effectively admitted that cladistics is not science, thereby undermining the entire evolutionary tree of life! Remarkably, other authors also make this statement, seemingly unaware of the implications[19].  Sometimes I think Dr. David Menton from Answers in Genesis is right when he says he thinks that “Sometimes I think that God comes down and takes people’s minds…”[20].

Beyond the evolutionary ideas tied to cladistics, there are other significant problems with cladistics that are independent of worldview. Cladistic based classifications work based on selecting a group of traits and looking for similarities.  But these traits are at the researcher’s discretion! That makes cladistics arbitrary. Researchers can make a cladistics chart based on any trait they want, and they do.  Thus, theoretically, they could produce a direct evolutionary ancestry between any creature they choose. This is not a valid way to make an argument.

Even if this was not an issue, cladistic mechanisms have no way to deal with a massive, outstanding issue in biology, that of hybridization. Some authors have admitted this. “We have as yet no technique for dealing with cases of hybridization.[21]”  Given that hybridization does produce new species, this is a massive hole in the usefulness of cladistics[22].

Keeping Classification?

Since cladistics is the basis for modern classification and it is completely bound up in evolution, it is acceptable to question whether Christians ought to accept the modern classification system.  Some Christians have rejected taxonomy entirely, in favor of a purportedly more Biblical system. One particular example of this comes from a gentleman named Chard Berndt, who published a book called Biblical Classification of Life. The following paragraphs provide a brief overview of the classification system Mr. Berndt proposed.

Berndt clearly understands how heavily taxonomy has been infested with evolutionary thinking. This is one of the reasons he wrote his book. It is not meant as a text on baraminology. In fact, Berndt is passingly critical of baraminology in the opening segment of his work. “Yet baraminology is strictly empirical, and does not employ biblical word studies in assessing creative associations.[23]” Berndt appears to favor attempting to delineate kinds every time they appear, including in the Levitical law, which I discussed in the first article of this series.

Berndt’s new taxonomy completely reworks the Linnaean system. Gone are the kingdom, phylum, class and so on that we all learned in high school. In its place comes an entirely new system, complete with new terms.  Berndt objects to Linnaean taxonomy as a whole because it is morphological in nature. His view is that the Bible classifies creatures based on their purpose, rather than their morphology, so the Linnaean classification is unbiblical.  He replaces it with a similar tiered system, that focuses on the habitat, behavior, and finally baramin of the creatures it examines.

Berndt’s classification system, while a noble effort and one I would not be opposed to in any sense, fails for a number of reasons.  The primary one is simply practical. As welcome as a Biblically based taxonomy would be, there is no practical way for Creation scientists to use a completely separate classification than the scientific community at large. It would only serve to further marginalize creation from the public at large, which will not help us reach those indoctrinated in evolutionary dogma.

Berndt’s argument also fails on usability.  His taxonomy is quite frankly, clunky. There are too many unknown wordings and groupings. The Linnaean classification works because it is breathtakingly simple This is to be expected. Most ideas are a bit clunky in their rough form. This is not to say the idea could not be refined and made workable. It just is not in its current form.

Bizarrely, Berndt then attempts to extend his classification system to angelic beings. Why he does this is unclear, but I can see no reason why there is a need to extend classification from the natural world to the realm of the supernatural. They are two separate realms, which, while God and the angels, fallen and otherwise do reach into the natural world, the natural world does not reach into the supernatural. Putting the two in the same classification system seems misguided.

Further, and this is not a criticism of Berndt, but his book raises the question, do we need to reject the current classification system as Christians? While I understand Berndt and others motivations to reject the system, I would argue the answer to the question is no. The Linnaean system was not meant as a solely naturalistic interpretation. Linnaeus was a deeply sincere Christian man. He frequently referred to God in his writings, saying “…I admire the wisdom of the Creator, which manifests itself in so many various modes, and demonstrate it to others.[24]” Linnaeus purpose was simply to provide a grouping for organisms. His intent has been misconstrued and repurposed by the current ruling paradigm to make it fit their worldview. Interestingly, some evolutionists, while recognizing Linnaeus for his efforts, dislike his taxonomy because it runs contrary to Darwinian evolution[25].

Classification and the Created Kind

 With the state of science being what it is, and the impossibility of changing the paradigm at the present time, how shall we harmonize the modern classification with the Biblical created kind? Is it even possible? If the goal is to get the scientific community to accept the kind as a genuine taxonomic unit, then the answer is undoubtedly negative.  The secular scientific community persists in regarding anything produced by creationists as irrelevant, regardless of how well researched it is, or how well qualified the authors are.  The reaction to Harvard trained Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson’s Replacing Darwin is ample evidence of that[26].

Since the secular world views creation as irrelevant, the kind is also irrelevant to them.  Thus we should not expect the taxonomic system to include the Biblical kind in that system until the evolutionary paradigm is overturned.  However, that actually works to the advantage of the Biblical kind concept.

Recall from earlier in this article that Simpson admitted that the entire classification system is, to an extent at least, arbitrary. This makes every definition and taxonomic level in the system subject to change at the discretion of the scientific community. The concepts are not built into nature. They are not units of nature. When I speak of a unit of nature, I mean something that is built into the natural world, much like the Law of Biogenesis and the Laws of Thermodynamics. The concept of a kind is a unit of nature.

Evolutionists might argue that kinds are equally arbitrary to species because both are delineated by man. This is where it is important to be clear. Both the contents of a kind and a species are somewhat arbitrary because man is the one putting things in those compartments. The kind is less arbitrary perhaps in this sense because it has a hard boundary that cannot be passed based on our studies in the first article, while technically, the scientific community could redefine species to mean anything. The difference is not in the application of the concepts, it is in the concepts themselves.

The species concept is arbitrary, because it originated with man, and thus is defined by man.  As I have previously emphasized, this does not make it the species concept bad, or useless. The concept of a computer is not a unit of nature either. It has a man-made definition and is subject to man changing its usage, yet it is a useful term for something that describes something most of us use every day.  However, the kind concept is a unit of nature because it originated not with man, but with the Maker.  Because God laid down the kind in the beginning, it is not arbitrary.  Since God does not change, and He laid down the kind concept, the kind concept does not change either[27]. If it is not subject to change, instead being governed by God, then it cannot be arbitrary, by default.

This lack of arbitrariness on the part of the kind is a major advantage because it allows for the building of a natural classification, independent of the Linnaean system.  Attempting to integrate the kind into the Linnaean system is counterproductive because scientists will not accept it, and, if compelled to use it, would subject it to the same level of arbitrariness that applies to the species, making the concept less useful, and more dependent on the shifting sands of man’s ideas.

This is not to say we should reject the Linnaean system.  In fact, the Linnaean system should be kept and upheld. Having a system of classification, however arbitrary, is better than the abject disorder that would result without it. Removing the Linnaean system would return taxonomy to the veritable Wild West that it was before Linnaeus published his work, with names at the discretion of the taxonomist.  The Linnaean system, with its inherent order, is a great benefit to creation baraminologists as well, as it provides a general framework from which to perform studies[28]. By having life pre-cataloged into groups, baraminologists can pick a group and attempt to determine what does not belong in that particular kind.

Just because the Linnaean system should be retained, however, does not mean we should attempt to shoehorn the Biblical kind into it. The system, as it stands today, is operating in direct opposition to the Bible, though this was not its intent. Simpson even admits that the entire system has been pushed down in order, ie that what was once an order, is now a family and so on[29]. Thus, the kind being independent of the system is useful because baraminologists are unconstrained by the shackles of the broken cladistics system. Those methods will be discussed further in the next article.

Referencing the Linnaean system to explain the kind concept is a regular occurrence in creationist literature. When Answers in Genesis built the Ark Encounter, they needed to determine how many kinds there were on the Ark.  Based on numerous baraminology studies, they determined that the kind usually is analogous to the family level of classification in the Linnaean system[30]. This is a broad-brush statement, and thus is of only limited value but it helps relate the well-known Linnaean system we had to memorize in high school to the Biblical kind. However, the Biblical kind is not exclusively at the family level. For example, the elephant kind is placed at the order level to include the mammoths and mastodons[31]. Therefore, it would be wise not to rely on this definition.  More information is required.

Getting that extra information requires baraminology studies. However, these can be time-consuming and there are few researchers active in the field. This places creationists, particularly creation speakers and authors in a difficult position.  I suspect most if not all of them are well aware that the kind is not locked at the family level of the Linnaean system but explaining why it is not locked there could be the subject of an entire lecture. Thus, they are frequently compelled to generalize. However, this generalization, while necessary, has led to many of the scientific laymen believing the Biblical kind is exclusively at the family level and being unable to support that argument in a discussion with evolutionists.  To correct this, it would be wise when generalizing to point out that the kind is a reproductive grouping and cite examples of kinds not at the family level, such as the aforementioned elephant kind.

A Creationist Classification

Forming a classification system based on creation is necessary, but it does not require shredding the existing system. The Linnaean system, however arbitrary, however, tied it has become to the evolutionary system, is a very useful framework. Binomial nomenclature, the two names given to species, are very useful for identification and discussion of organisms.  Nor is it necessary or wise to attempt to integrate the Biblical kind into the classification system, particularly as it stands currently. The two systems can exist side by side. While this is somewhat awkward, it is better than the alternative. Perhaps, if the scientific community ever rejects the evolutionary paradigm and turns to God and creation, then the classification system can be amended to more accurately reflect God’s created order. Until then, studying the baramins separate from Linnaean taxonomy is the best option available.



[1] Genesis 2:19

[2] Aristotle, The History of Animals, trans. D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson

[3] Heinz Goerke Linnaeus trans. Denver Lindley, (New York: Charles Scribner Sons, 1973).

[4] Ibid

[5] Alec L. Panchen Classification, Evolution, and the Nature of Biology New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

[6] “Arnold G. Kluge. “Total Evidence or Taxonomic Congruence: Cladistics or Consensus Classification.” Cladistics Volume 14 (1998) Pages 151-158.

[7] Alex L. Panchen, 1992.

[8] Andrew V. Z. Brower. “Evolution Is Not a Necessary Assumption of Cladistics.” Cladistics Volume 14 (2000) Pages 143-154.

[9] Jerry Bergman. Slaughter of the Dissidents Southworth; Leafcutter Press, 2008.

[10] Kipling W. Will and Daniel Rubinoff. “Myth of the molecule: DNA barcodes for species cannot replace morphology for identification and classification.” Cladistics Volume 20 (2004) Pages 47-55.

[11] Kevin de Queiroz and Michael J. Donoghue. “Phylogenetics Systematics or Nelson’s Version of Cladistics.” Cladistics Volume 6 (1990) Pages 61-75.

[12] Willi Hennig. “Phylogenetic Systematics,” in Cladistic Theory and Methodology ed. Thomas Duncan and Tod F. Stuessy (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1985).

[13] Ward. C Wheeler, Michael Whiting, Quentin D. Wheeler, and James M. Carpenter. “The Phylogeny of the Extant Hexapod Orders.” Cladistics Volume 17 (2001) Pages 113-169.

[14] David J. Garbary, Karen S. Renzaglia, and Jeffrey G. Duckett. “The phylogeny of land plants: a cladistic analysis based on male gametogenesis.” Plant Systematics and Evolution Volume 188 (1993) Pages 237-269.

[15] Rolando Gonzalez-Jose, Ignacio Escapa, Walter A. Neves, Ruben Cuneo and Hector M. Pucciarelli. “Cladistic analysis of continuous modularized traits provides phylogenetic signals in Homo evolution.” Nature Volume 453 (2008)

[16] E.O. Wiley. “Karl R. Popper, Systematics and Classification: A reply to Walter Bock and Other Evolutionary Taxonomists.” in Cladistic Theory and Methodology ed. Thomas Duncan and Tod F. Stuessy (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1985).

[17] George Gaylord Simpson. Principles of Animal Taxonomy (New York: Columbia Univeristy Press, 1961.)

[18]W.H. Wagner Jr. “Origin and Philosophy of the Groundplan-divergence Method of Cladistics” in Cladistic Theory and Methodology ed. Thomas Duncan and Tod F. Stuessy (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1985)

[19] Peter D. Ashlock “The Uses of Cladistics” in Cladistic Theory and Methodology ed. Thomas Duncan and Tod F. Stuessy (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1985)

[20] David Menton “Evolution: Not a Chance!” Filmed 2014, Answers in Genesis video, 3:55, posted September 2016.

[21] Joseph H. Camin and Robert R. Sokal “A Method for Deducing Branching Sequences in Phylogeny” in Cladistic Theory and Methodology ed. Thomas Duncan and Tod F. Stuessy (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1985)

[22] James Mallet “Hybrid Speciation” Nature Volume 446 (2007) Pages 279-283

[23] Chard Berndt. Biblical Classification of Life Elihu Publishing, 2000.


[24] D. H. Stoever The Life of Sir Charles Linnaeus trans. Joseph Trapp, (London: E. Hobson, 1794)

[25] Simpson, 1961.

[26] Herman Mays “Making it up as  he goes along: A review of Replacing Darwin Pt 1.” September 11, 2018, Accessed December 4, 2018.

[27] Hebrews 13:8

[28] Wood and Murray, 2003.

[29] Simpson, 1961.

[30] Georgia Purdom “Variety Within Created Kinds.” April 1, 2010, Accessed December 5, 2018.

[31] Lightner, 2012.

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