Linnaeus, Carolus

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Linnaeus, Carolus (1707-78). Swedish, Naturalist.

Carolus Linnaeus, sometimes known as Carl von Linné, regularized and instituted binomial nomenclature in the sciences and pioneered taxonomic classification of flora and fauna in such works as Philosophia botanica (1751) and Systema naturae (first edition, 1735). He elaborated a sexual system for the classification of plants in Fundamenta botanica (1736), relying for the effectiveness of this admittedly artificial method on the enumeration of stamens and pistils. Though Linnaeus espoused a cameralist philosophy, evincing his patriotism in a vision of Swedish economic autarky, his influence nevertheless extended far beyond Scandinavia and indeed beyond the sphere of his fellow naturalists, affecting philosophical and literary figures of the order of Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Goethe, Johann Wolfgang and Darwin, Erasmus.

The child of the curate of Stenbrohult, Småland, Linnaeus received the sponsorship of the Uppsala Science Society in 1732 for a journey to Lapland, where he observed flora, fauna and the customs of the indigenous Sami people. The year before, he had first committed to paper in Hortus Uplandicus the prototype of his sexual system for plant classification. The core concept governing this system is the metaphoric gendering of stamens as male and pistils as female, the arrangement of plants depending on the disposition of these elements in flowers. Linnaeus earned his doctorate in medicine at Harderwijk University in Holland in 1735, travelling subsequently to London and Paris. In 1735, he published the first version of his global taxonomic guide Systema naturae. The tenth edition of Systema naturae (1758) definitively inaugurated binomial nomenclature for fauna. Many of the scientific names he then proposed persist in modern usage, such as Homo sapiens (human being) and Sturnus vulgaris (common starling). The first nomen of each binomial differentiates a creature's genus, the second its species. Linnaeus caused some controversy by classifying humanity among primates. Philosophia botanica (1751) had already set out rules for botanical nomenclators; this treatise supplied the model on which Linnaeus patterned his faunal classification. Contemporary scientists still observe most Linnaean protocols in naming naturalia or "natural things".

In 1739 Linnaeus co-founded the Swedish Academy of Science, becoming professor of medicine at Uppsala University in 1741. As a naturalist, he acquired many disciples. Some, such as Pehr Kalm (1715-79), Pehr Osbeck (1723-1805), Daniel Solander (1736-82) and Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828), travelled widely and compiled valuable collections. Kalm visited the New England colonies and Quebec (1748-51). Osbeck toured China (1750-52). Together with Banks, Joseph, Daniel Solander circumnavigated the globe on Captain Cook, James's Endeavour (1768-71). Thunberg visited Africa, Sri Lanka, Java and Japan (1770-79). When Linnaeus died of stroke in 1778, Thunberg succeeded him at the University of Uppsala (1781).

Although Linnaeus was a patriot who had hoped to naturalize in Sweden the sources of exotic goods such as tea and silk, thereby freeing Sweden from reliance on international trade, his taxonomical work nevertheless received acclaim from cosmopolitan figures, including Rousseau and Goethe. Linnaean botany figures prominently not only in Rousseau's Confessions, but also in his last book The Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1776). As Rousseau practiced it, Linnaean botany recommended itself, paradoxically, for its want of utilitarian purpose. In thus depriving Linnaeus's project of obvious economic, that is to say cameralist, motivations and emphasizing what he conceived of as the aesthetic pleasure specially derivable from botany, Rousseau ironically helped to extend Linnaeus's fame. Linnaeus's own use of Latin (or neo-Latin) as the language of science worked further to secure a wide audience. Goethe considered Linnaeus one of his great teachers, but he departed from Linnaeus on the grounds that Linnaean taxonomy contented itself with mere enumerative description. Goethe's desire for a dynamic morphology of vegetation found expression in his Attempt to Elucidate the Metamorphosis of Plants (1790). The French naturalist Buffon, George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de derided the artificiality of Linnaeus's sexual system; in England, Erasmus Darwin celebrated the centrality of sex to Linnaeus's botany in his Ovidian poem The Loves of the Plants (1789).

After Linnaeus's death, Swedish natural history suffered decadence. In 1784, the Briton James Edward Smith bought Linnaeus's collections, library and manuscripts; four years later, Smith co-founded the Linnaean Society of London. Around 1900, Swedish nationalists proposed Linnaeus Day (23 May) as a patriotic alternative to the socialist May Day. By the 1930s, the Swedish iconography of Linnaeus had, in some cases, assumed racist overtones (the brown-eyed "Flower King" was depicted blue-eyed). Yet the German Ernst Jünger opposed Linnaean nuance to the bloody deeds of a tyrant in his 1939 novella On the Marble Cliffs.

Further Reading:

Lisbet Koerner, Linnaeus: nature and nation, 1999.

Sten Lindroth, ed., Linnaeus, the man and his work, 1983.

Paul Beidler