May 23, 1707 - January 10, 1778
Carolus Linnaeus was a Swedish botanist who claim to fame lays
in his development of the nomenclature still used today to name plants
and animals. For example humans are "Homo sapiens", we are of the
genus Homo and the species sapiens. Or the common periwinkle is
"Littorina littorea" - or "L. littorea", for short. This year is
the 300 anniversary of Linnaeus' birth. Why is it that Sweden is
in the midst of this great celebration? Well, in part because he is
Swedish. But what is it that he did - and should we care?
First off, lets look at the modern classification of some creature; a common periwinkle for example;
When he was a young man he explored Sweden, leading the first scientific expedition to Lapland and various other corners of the kingdom. He also visited the Netherlands, France and England, and build contacts with the evolving international scientific community. And people were impressed with his work and his writing. I'm told that he was actually a pleasure to read. People from around the world started sending him planets and animals until his collection became the standard collection by which all others were compared.
Was it genius - or was it his gift to communicate with the world which made the center of this intellectual enterprise? Or a bit of both?
So is this 300 year celebration just the Swedish need for a holiday/party or is there something more? Well, I find a bit of evidence that he really touched people's imagination even before this year. In 1886 Stockholm put up a statue of Linnaeus in the Humlegĺrden, the park right next to the Kungliga Bibliotek (Royal Library), and leading out of that park is Linnégatan (Linné Street). He is also on the 100 kroner bank note.
A word about his name might be in order. At the University (original Lund and the Uppsala) he used the latinised name "Carolus Linnaeus", following his father. But later when the king raised him to nobility he became, "Carl von Linné", the "von" indicates the rank of baron. I find that in most of the world (ie. in the US where I first encountered him, and from my father) he is called by his academic name, the one he published under: Linnaeus. But in Sweden he is know by his noble name: Linné.
So what is happening in 2007? First, you can of course check the website: www.linne2007.se or www.linnaeus2007.se and you will see that everybody but everybody has a special exhibit. Even the old House of Nobles building (like the British Parliament - House of Lords) on Gamla Stan has a exhibit, because he was one of them. Skansen, the outdoor museum has path through there grounds include quotes from his journals, the Stockholm City Museum has an exhibit. The University of Uppsala has special tours of his gardens. In Uppsala there is even a "Linnébussen" run by the local city bus system which connects various Linnaeus site. The Postal Museum has an exhibit, and just about every botanical garden and greenhouse in the city has something special. Even the city library has had a number of different displays.
But wait - there is more. Most bookstores have their windows filled with books which are some how related to him. And here, I think, may be the real connection. The official poster proclaims him as "Mr. Flower Power" (yes - in English). They do not call him "Mr. Taxonomy", or "Mr. Binomial Nomenclature". The book which sell are full of beautiful color photos of flowers, and not his book "Systema Naturae".
So what about his system of organizing the world? "Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit", ("God created, Linnaeus organized"), he one time said, casting himself in a Adam-like role. He wrote (I found this quote in "Hidden Worlds" - so it must be right)
The first step of science is to know one thing from another.
But names are well and good - however it is an organization which is important.
An alternative arrangement of all of nature was the "Chain of Beings", which started with God, then Angles, then humans, worked through mammals and off to lesser creatures. But it didn't quite work. The full, modern taxonomy system works because it doesn't rank. It tells us what is next to each other without putting everything in a line. Linnaeus saw that things with similar physical characteristics are in some sense similar -- and that is really what is important. The idea of a tree structure is right -- because that is the way nature really is.
So there is this ever branching "tree" organization. The world is divided into three kingdoms (according to Linnaeus), Animal, Vegetable and Mineral (see, when my Aunt taught me the game "20 Questions", she was right), the kingdoms are subdivided, phylum. Each phylum is broken in classes, then orders, families, genus and species. ("King Philip Came Over For Green Stamps" - as Mr. Kelly taught me) And at the very tips of the branches -- the species which we have today.
But the whole system is real because it also reflect evolution (unknown to Linnaeus). And this -- scientifically speaking -- is what is so tremendously important and amazing about taxonomy. Taxonomy is not just a stuffy old branch of science best know through taxidermist who stuff animals for display. Two animals are in the same genus because they are similar in history as well as having similar physical traits. Two species which only share the same classes split in evolutionary history a long time ago.
In a real sense Linnaeus had to come before Darwin!
So should we be celebrating Linnaeus this year? I think we should, but from a scientific point of view what he gave us was organization, not the pretty flowers he is pictured with. He did liked flowers, and that is what has caught people's attention today, but that wasn't really his contribution. However it is really nice to see so much attention being focused on a scientist, And I think us scientist should welcome the attention payed to one of our own -- no matter what the reason.