|Vrſvs Lotor Linn.|
Was Linnaeus nuts? Of course not. He saw that the task of creating a unique name for every species would be extremely difficult, so he decided it would be okay to reuse the same names if they were prefaced by the name of a more general category—a genus. Thus, for example, he was able to call the house mouse Mus musculus and the blue whale Balaena musculus (now either Balaenoptera or Sibbaldus). Although they have the same specific epithet, those epithets are unique within their general category. As long as homonymy is avoided, there's no nomenclatural need to restrict genera, so why not make them broad?
In this way, genera function as what we in the computer science world call namespaces. Different things are allowed to have the same local name as long as they are within different namespaces. The qualified name, which combines a namespace identifier with the local name, is globally unique, even if the local name is not.
generic name + specific epithet = species name
namespace identifier + local name = qualified name
Recently, this got me to thinking—why have we restricted our genera so much, when this was their original purpose? If we just want to be sure that each species has a globally unique name, we could have much larger genera—in some cases, even larger than Linnaeus'.
Consider our own genus, Homo. It has exactly one extant species, Homo sapiens, and that species has an epithet that is already, as far as I know, globally unique. How is that useful? Even Linnaeus thought this was rather silly—he would have included humans in his anthropoid genus, Simia, except he feared backlash. (Even including us in the same order as other primates was controversial at the time.)
How far could we extend our genus and retain its usefulness as a namespace? How far out can we go without having duplicate local names? Within Homo we already have local names like sapiens, erectus, habilis, etc. We actually do have at least one duplicate name, Homo capensis, but it's universally considered a junior synonym. (Although this case is a bit complicated.) If we only consider valid, non-synonymous names, how far can we push our genus?
If we include all stem-humans there's no problem. We add things like Homo afarensis and Homo robustus.
|Left to right: Homo sapiens, gorilla, troglodytes, lar, & pygmaeus.|
Still no problem if we push it out to the great ape crown clade, adding things like Homo pygmaeus (Bornean orangutans) and Homo indicus (otherwise Sivapithecus).
Pushing it out to the ape crown clade still works, as we add things like Homo lar (lar gibbons) and Homo syndactylus (siamangs). (Interestingly enough, Homo lar is Linnaeus' original name for the species. Only later was it given a new genus, Hylobates, by Illiger, where it resides to this day. I'm not quite sure why Linnaeus classified it this way, but my guess is he wasn't that familiar with the animal in question, as was often the case.)
But if we go beyond that, we hit a duplicate: Homo africanus (Hopwood 1933, originally Proconsul) and Homo africanus (Dart 1925, originally Australopithecus). (We actually already hit Meganthropus africanus Weinert, 1950 a while ago, but that's universally considered a synonym.)
So there we go, Homo could be used as the generic name for all crown-group apes without any problem. (I'm willing to bet I missed something, though, and I'm looking forward to some commenter correcting me.) We have restricted our genera far more than they need to be restricted in order for species names to be unique.
Are we nuts? Of course not. A genus is much more than just a namespace. We also use genera on their own, as groups in their own right. Expanding Homo to embrace all extant apes would ruin its utility as a name for a certain subclade of the human total group, and make it redundant with a name that we already have (Hominoidea). (In computer science namespaces are also often narrower than they technically could be.)
Then again, maybe it is a bit nuts to have one thing performing two jobs. Why not allow other, larger taxa to be used as namespaces? Well, under the PhyloCode, that will actually be a possibility. We can refer to Hominoidea syndactylus and Hominoidea sapiens if we want. In fact, I think you could use Synapsida syndactylus (avoiding homonymy with Bleda syndactylus, the red-tailed bristlebill) and Biota sapiens (this epithet being globally unique already, as previously mentioned). These particular examples will probably never be popular and I wouldn't use them myself, but I think it's neat that the possibility exists.