The exact definition of taxonomy varies from source to source, but the core of the discipline remains: the conception, naming, and classification of groups of organisms. As points of reference, recent definitions of taxonomy are presented below:
- Theory and practice of grouping individuals into species, arranging species into larger groups, and giving those groups names, thus producing a classification.
- A field of science (and major component of systematics) that encompasses description, identification, nomenclature, and classification
- The science of classification, in biology the arrangement of organisms into a classification
- "The science of classification as applied to living organisms, including study of means of formation of species, etc."
- "The analysis of an organism's characteristics for the purpose of classification"
- "Systematics studies phylogeny to provide a pattern that can be translated into the classification and names of the more inclusive field of taxonomy" (listed as a desirable but unusual definition)
The varied definitions either place taxonomy as a sub-area of systematics (definition 2), invert that relationship (definition 6), or appear to consider the two terms synonymous. There is some disagreement as to whether biological nomenclature is considered a part of taxonomy (definitions 1 and 2), or a part of systematics outside taxonomy. For example, definition 6 is paired with the following definition of systematics that places nomenclature outside taxonomy:
- Systematics: "The study of the identification, taxonomy, and nomenclature of organisms, including the classification of living things with regard to their natural relationships and the study of variation and the evolution of taxa".
A whole set of terms including taxonomy, systematic biology, systematics, biosystematics, scientific classification, biological classification, and phylogenetics have at times had overlapping meanings – sometimes the same, sometimes slightly different, but always related and intersecting. The broadest meaning of "taxonomy" is used here. The term itself was introduced in 1813 by de Candolle, in his Théorie élémentaire de la botanique.
Monograph and taxonomic revision
A taxonomic revision or taxonomic review is a novel analysis of the variation patterns in a particular taxon. This analysis may be executed on the basis of any combination of the various available kinds of characters, such as morphological, anatomical, palynological, biochemical and genetic. A monograph or complete revision is a revision that is comprehensive for a taxon for the information given at a particular time, and for the entire world. Other (partial) revisions may be restricted in the sense that they may only use some of the available character sets or have a limited spatial scope. A revision results in a conformation of or new insights in the relationships between the subtaxa within the taxon under study, which may result in a change in the classification of these subtaxa, the identification of new subtaxa, or the merger of previous subtaxa.
Alpha and beta taxonomy
The term "alpha taxonomy" is primarily used today to refer to the discipline of finding, describing, and naming taxa, particularly species. In earlier literature, the term had a different meaning, referring to morphological taxonomy, and the products of research through the end of the 19th century.
William Bertram Turrill introduced the term "alpha taxonomy" in a series of papers published in 1935 and 1937 in which he discussed the philosophy and possible future directions of the discipline of taxonomy.
… there is an increasing desire amongst taxonomists to consider their problems from wider viewpoints, to investigate the possibilities of closer co-operation with their cytological, ecological and genetical colleagues and to acknowledge that some revision or expansion, perhaps of a drastic nature, of their aims and methods, may be desirable … Turrill (1935) has suggested that while accepting the older invaluable taxonomy, based on structure, and conveniently designated "alpha", it is possible to glimpse a far-distant taxonomy built upon as wide a basis of morphological and physiological facts as possible, and one in which "place is found for all observational and experimental data relating, even if indirectly, to the constitution, subdivision, origin, and behaviour of species and other taxonomic groups". Ideals can, it may be said, never be completely realized. They have, however, a great value of acting as permanent stimulants, and if we have some, even vague, ideal of an "omega" taxonomy we may progress a little way down the Greek alphabet. Some of us please ourselves by thinking we are now groping in a "beta" taxonomy.
Turrill thus explicitly excludes from alpha taxonomy various areas of study that he includes within taxonomy as a whole, such as ecology, physiology, genetics, and cytology. He further excludes phylogenetic reconstruction from alpha taxonomy (pp. 365–366).
Later authors have used the term in a different sense, to mean the delimitation of species (not subspecies or taxa of other ranks), using whatever investigative techniques are available, and including sophisticated computational or laboratory techniques. Thus, Ernst Mayr in 1968 defined beta taxonomy as the classification of ranks higher than species.
An understanding of the biological meaning of variation and of the evolutionary origin of groups of related species is even more important for the second stage of taxonomic activity, the sorting of species into groups of relatives ("taxa") and their arrangement in a hierarchy of higher categories. This activity is what the term classification denotes; it is also referred to as beta taxonomy.
Microtaxonomy and macrotaxonomy
How species should be defined in a particular group of organisms gives rise to practical and theoretical problems that are referred to as the species problem. The scientific work of deciding how to define species has been called microtaxonomy. By extension, macrotaxonomy is the study of groups at higher taxonomic ranks, from subgenus and above only, than species.