A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Part 5, Chapter 23 : Life Itself (The Richness of Being) | Summary



To begin explaining why there is still more life to be discovered, Bryson provides a history of plant and animal collection. English botanist Joseph Banks was one of the greatest early explorers. He sailed on the Endeavour voyage of 1768–71, the "greatest botanical expedition in history." Banks was able to "increase by about a quarter the number of known plants in the world." This initiated an international plant-collection project during the 18th century with collectors such as Thomas Nuttall, who named the wisteria and wrote the Genera of North American Plants.

Early in the 18th century, it was clear a method of organization was needed for both plants and animals. Carl Linné, better known by the Latinized name Carolus Linnaeus, was one of the first to categorize plants and animals based on their taxonomic characteristics. In other words, his system, called the Linnaean, used relationships to organize the plant and animal worlds rather than other, more arbitrary categories. This system of classification was recorded in his text Systema Naturae, first published in 1735.

The Linnaean system consists of:

  • Kingdom: originally Linnaeus recognized only two kingdoms, animals and plants. Today kingdoms also include fungi (fungus and related organisms), protista (single-celled organisms with a nucleus), and monera (organisms without a nucleus, such as bacteria).
  • Phylum: based on body plan. An example is the phylum Chordata (animals with a backbone).
  • Class: subdivision of phylum. For example, Chordata is divided into mammals, reptiles, and fish.
  • Order: subdivision of class. For instance, mammals include cetaceans (whales and dolphins), carnivores, primates, and bats.
  • Family: subdivision of order. For instance, the primate family includes humans as well as monkeys, apes, and other animals.
  • Genus: First of two names used to describe an organism. For instance, all humans who ever lived are in the genus Homo.
  • Species: Second of two names used to describe an organism. For instance, modern humans are Homo sapiens.

Linnaeus categorized the animal world into six categories: mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, insects, and worms, the last a catchall category. His genius lay in simplifying and standardizing the names of species and for making "often brilliant" decisions such as the realization whales were mammals. Unfortunately, as there were ultimately 12 editions of the book, different countries used different versions of the system; this was not standardized until 1902.

The Linnaean system has persisted since that time, but refinements have been introduced "as the needs of the natural sciences grew more specialized." In particular, genetic research might change classification systems.

Bryson points out scientists still have about 100 million species of insects alone to find, which at current rates of discovery will take "a little over 15,000 years." Documenting the rest of the animal kingdom might, he says, "take a little longer." He ends by listing the reasons why finding and classifying new species is such a slow process:

  • Most living things are "small and easily overlooked." A simple handful of soil, for instance, will contain about 10 billion bacteria, most unknown to science.
  • Scientists don't look in the right places. Tropical rain forests, for instance, hold more than half of Earth's animal life, but few researchers spend time there.
  • There aren't enough specialists studying organisms such as fungi.
  • The world is so big, scientists have not investigated every part of it.


Bryson notes the Linnaean system of classification was the first real systematic attempt to classify and record animals based on their physical attributes. Linnaeus made brilliant contributions to science, and his system is still valuable today.

In regard to taxonomic sciences in general, Bryson cites a persistent "lack of prestige and resources" for taxonomists around the globe. He points out the great diversity of life on Earth and its vast size, the biases in where people look for new life, and the lack of specialists are additional reasons why it is so difficult to find and classify new species.

Bryson argues these realities are important for understanding why researchers should focus on one specialty. While not enough researchers specialize—the death of a specialist can cause research in a field to stop altogether—those who do can be extremely tenacious. For example, one scientist spent 50 years studying a particular genus of land snails.

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