In his biology, Aristotle used the term γένος (génos) to mean a kind, such as a bird or fish, and εἶδος (eidos) to mean a specific form within a kind, such as (within the birds) the crane, eagle, crow, or sparrow. These terms were translated into Latin as "genus" and "species", though they do not correspond to the Linnean terms thus named; today the birds are a class, the cranes are a family, and the crows a genus. A kind was distinguished by its attributes; for instance, a bird has feathers, a beak, wings, a hard-shelled egg, and warm blood. A form was distinguished by being shared by all its members, the young inheriting any variations they might have from their parents. Aristotle believed all kinds and forms to be distinct and unchanging. His approach remained influential until the Renaissance.
John Ray believed that species breed true and do not change, even though variations exist.
When observers in the Early Modern period began to develop systems of organization for living things, they placed each kind of animal or plant into a context. Many of these early delineation schemes would now be considered whimsical: schemes included consanguinity based on colour (all plants with yellow flowers) or behaviour (snakes, scorpions and certain biting ants). John Ray, an English naturalist, was the first to attempt a biological definition of species in 1686, as follows:
No surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed. Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individuals or the species, if they spring from the seed of one and the same plant, they are accidental variations and not such as to distinguish a species ... Animals likewise that differ specifically preserve their distinct species permanently; one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa.
In the 18th century, the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus classified organisms according to shared physical characteristics, and not simply based upon differences. He established the idea of a taxonomichierarchy of classification based upon observable characteristics and intended to reflect natural relationships. At the time, however, it was still widely believed that there was no organic connection between species, no matter how similar they appeared. This view was influenced by European scholarly and religious education, which held that the categories of life are dictated by God, forming an Aristotelian hierarchy, the scala naturae or great chain of being. However, whether or not it was supposed to be fixed, the scala (a ladder) inherently implied the possibility of climbing.
The possibility of change
Faced with evidence of hybridisation, Linnaeus came to accept that species could change, and the struggle for survival, but not that new species could freely evolve. By the 19th century, naturalists understood that species could change form over time, and that the history of the planet provided enough time for major changes. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, in his 1809 Zoological Philosophy, described the transmutation of species, proposing that a species could change over time, in a radical departure from Aristotelian thinking.
In 1859, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace provided a compelling account of evolution and the formation of new species. Darwin argued that it was populations that evolved, not individuals, by natural selection from naturally occurring variation among individuals. This required a new definition of species. Darwin concluded that species are what they appear to be: ideas, provisionally useful for naming groups of interacting individuals, writing:
I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other ... It does not essentially differ from the word variety, which is given to less distinct and more fluctuating forms. The term variety, again, in comparison with mere individual differences, is also applied arbitrarily, and for convenience sake.