Grattis på födelsedagen, Linné

Image: The orangery in Linnaeus’ botanical garden in Uppsala. Photo by Yossa Dwi Hartono. 

Happy birthday, Linnaeus.

Imagine yourself back in Europe, exactly 310 years ago, in 1707. The Protestant Reformation has been going for 190 years. Leeuwenhoek first saw the microbes with his microscopes just a few decades ago. Isaac Newton is 64 years old. Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi are in their 20s. Benjamin Franklin was born a year ago. Darwin and Nobel will not be born for at least a century yet.

In such a world and time was Linnaeus born.

Some of Linnaeus’ contemporaries.

My first encounter with Carl Linné (Latinised: Carolus Linnaeus) was probably in 7th or 8th grade Biology class when we learn about those cool sounding Latin names of organisms (and I had to memorise them, much to my dismay). Homo sapiens, Oryza sativa, Musa paradisiaca, Canis familiaris, E. coli — these are the binomial classification of taxonomy; you can thank Linnaeus for that.

Carolus Linnaeus (cleaned up version).jpg
Portrait of Carl von Linné by Alexander Roslin, digitally cleaned up. You may have seen this particular depiction of Linnaeus on the 100 kronor banknote (to be phased out this year). Via Wikimedia Commons.

I encountered Linnaeus again when I read Stephen Jay Gould’s essay Linnaeus’s Luck where he wrote about Linnaeus and taxonomy. I will highlight a few points worth pointing out for the occasion, but you should read the essay in its entirety [1].

Gould begins by defending taxonomy from detractors who say that it is just “stamp collecting”. Gould argued that taxonomy is not just mere cataloguing—for in doing so it is just philately indeed—but he does not want to take the other extreme’s view, either, that taxonomy “reflects the structure of divine thought”, held by the Swiss zoologist Louis Agassiz. Gould takes a stance somewhere in the middle, pointing out that there is no objective natural order, divine or not, to be reflected by taxonomy. Taxonomy reflects “both mind and nature”, in other words, the classifier and the classified cannot be disentangled.

Metaphysically, science itself is a system of cataloguing knowledge and making sense of it. Isn’t then taxonomy the very archetype of science? As a chemist, this is fascinating to me. In the early days of chemistry, Mendeleev put together the periodic table of elements and managed to make sense of it. Indeed the rows and periods reflect the objective nature of reality — that different elements just have different numbers of protons/electrons: in the same row they are filling the same electron shell; in the same period they have the same number of valence electrons. Needless to say, biology is much more complex and cannot be put into neat rows and periods. The “making sense of it” part is much less trivial, and as we will see, this takes at least about a century after Linnaeus.

The title page of 1st edition of Systema Naturae. Note that it is marked “Exemplar Auctoris” which means this is Linnaeus’ own copy [2].

There is a reason why I mentioned the Protestant Reformation and Darwin in the beginning. As is true for many naturalists of his time, Linnaeus was a devout Christian and he saw the work of the taxonomist as unveiling the manifolds of God’s wisdom (note how he quoted Psalms 104:24 on the title page of 1st edition of Systema Naturae). Yet, wouldn’t he have seen in his hierarchical classification the evolutionary tree of life? Gould also ponders at this. Perhaps it was not that obvious without the benefit of hindsight of evolution—it takes another century until Darwin, after all.

O Lord, how manifold are thy works!
in wisdom hast thou made them all:
the earth is full of thy riches.
— Psalms 104:24 (KJV)

To my surprise, Gould does not hesitate to point out that Linnaeus was arrogant and went too far in his taxonomy effort that he included rocks, minerals and fossils in his binomial classification. After reading more about Linnaeus, I am taking a more nuanced view. Again, Linnaeus did not have the benefit of evolution as the logical framework that explains his hierarchical classification. Moreover, people at his time certainly did not have the same definition of life as we do today (Pasteur debunking spontaneous generation came only a century later). Linnaeus simply viewed the mineral kingdom as part of the organic [3]. But I see Gould’s point: we should not be so enamoured by Linnaeus’ grandiosity that we overlook his shortcomings.

Anthropomorpha Detail form Systema Naturae 1735
Top left corner of first page of chapter Regnum Animale in 1st edition of Systema Naturaevia Wikimedia Commons.

Gould concludes his essay on a philosophical note by pointing out that Linnaeus wrote “Nosce te ipsum” (Know thyself) on the entry of Homo sapiens in lieu of anatomical description. How poetic, to insert a proverb in a taxonomy book, right? With this timeless imperative, Linnaeus is inviting the reader to see the paradoxical nature of herself — she is at once the classifier perusing the book and the classified. To know oneself is also to know one’s relationships. To Nature: at the very top (if you look at the whole page, Homo is at the top of the table). To fellow men: are we all really the same? In the 1st edition of Systema Naturae, Homo sapiens was not mentioned in this edition yet, but instead: H. Europaeus albesc., H. Americanus rubesc., H. Asiaticus fuscus, H. Africanus nigr.; in that order. It is clear that the order is not alphabetical.

But I shall end this post with more uplifting notes.

It is interesting to note that Linnaeus lived at the end of the Baroque period. Consider that Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons was published when Linnaeus was 18. I wonder if Linnaeus had ever heard it. In the botanical garden that he was the caretaker of in Uppsala, there are sections that correspond to spring and autumn and others [4]. Maybe he was inspired by Vivaldi’s literal music of the spheres or the zeitgeist of the Baroque in general; maybe it is just his thoroughness in his botanical pursuits. In any case, the garden is Linnaeus’ The Four Seasons.

With that, may you have a nice spring.


[1] You can find this essay in the essay collection I Have Landed, available in Stadsbibliotek.
[2] This particular exemplar is part of the collections of The Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library / Hagströmerbiblioteket.
[3] See also this Forbes article: How Biology Pioneer Carl Linnaeus Once Tried To Classify Minerals.
[4] This garden has been restored and now is under the care of Uppsala University and available for visit (link for Linnaeus’ garden / Linnéträdgården).

Further readings

Uppsala University has compiled short articles about Linnaeus, in Swedish and English.

View Yossa Dwi Hartono's profile on LinkedIn

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s