The Life You Give: Carl Linnaeus *1707

Carolus Linnaeus, born on May 23, 1707, in Råshult, Småland, Sweden, is the naturalist and explorer who was the first to frame principles for defining natural genera and species of organisms and to create a uniform system for naming them (binomial nomenclature).

Linnaeus was the son of a curate and grew up in Småland, a poor region in southern Sweden. His early interest in botany was channeled by a teacher at Växjö gymnasium, who acquainted him with the plant system of French botanist and physician Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, an essay on plant sexuality by French botanist Sébastian Vaillant, and the physiological writings of Dutch physician and professor of medicine Herman Boerhaave. In 1727 Linnaeus began his studies in medicine at Lund University, but he transferred to Uppsala University in 1728. Because of his financial situation, he could only visit a few lectures; however, the university professor Olof Celsius provided Linnaeus access to his library. From 1730 to 1732 he was able to subsidize himself by teaching botany in the university garden of Uppsala.

The Aristipposian Poet
The Life You Give: Carl Linnaeus
in celebration of his contribution to science, culture, and nature
May 23 at 3pm
on Clubhouse

At this early stage, Linnaeus laid the groundwork for much of his later work in a series of manuscripts. Their publication, however, had to await more-fortuitous circumstances. In 1732 the Uppsala Academy of Sciences sent Linnaeus on a research expedition to Lapland. After his return in the autumn of that year, he gave private lectures in botany and mineral assaying. That Christmas he used some of his earnings to pay a visit to Claes Sohlberg, his friend and fellow student, in Falun, the capital of the copper-mining region of Dalarna, in central Sweden. There he became acquainted with the governor, who financed a second trip to the region in the summer of 1734. At the time, it was necessary for Swedish medical students to complete their doctoral degrees abroad in order to open a successful medical practice in their homeland. In an agreement with Sohlberg’s father, who was the royal inspector of the Falun copper mine and impressed with Linnaeus’s botanical and mineralogical abilities, Linnaeus received an annual stipend to offset medical school expenses in the Netherlands. In return, Linnaeus promised to take young Sohlberg with him on the trip and serve as his academic mentor. Before they embarked on their journey in the spring of 1735, Linnaeus became engaged to Sara Elisabeth—the daughter of Johan Moraeus, a well-to-do physician in Falun. It was agreed that their marriage should take place after Linnaeus returned from the Netherlands in three years’ time.

A few days after arriving in the Dutch town of Harderwijk in May 1735, Linnaeus completed his examinations and received his medical degree following the submission of a thesis he had prepared in advance on the topic of intermittent fevers. Linnaeus and Sohlberg then journeyed to Leiden, where Linnaeus sought patronage for the publication of his numerous manuscripts. He was immediately successful, and his Systema Naturae (“The System of Nature”) was published only a few months later with financial support from Jan Frederik Gronovius, senator of Leiden, and Isaac Lawson, a Scottish physician. This folio volume of only 11 pages presented a hierarchical classification, or taxonomy, of the three kingdoms of nature: stones, plants, and animals. Each kingdom was subdivided into classes, orders, genera, species, and varieties. This hierarchy of taxonomic ranks replaced traditional systems of biological classification that were based on mutually exclusive divisions, or dichotomies. Linnaeus’s classification system has survived in biology, though additional ranks, such as families, have been added to accommodate growing numbers of species.

In particular, it was the botanical section of Systema Naturae that built Linnaeus’s scientific reputation. After reading essays on sexual reproduction in plants by Vaillant and by German botanist Rudolph Jacob Camerarius, Linnaeus had become convinced of the idea that all organisms reproduce sexually. As a result, he expected each plant to possess male and female sexual organs (stamens and pistils), or “husbands and wives,” as he also put it. On this basis, he designed a simple system of distinctive characteristics to classify each plant. The number and position of the stamens, or husbands, determined the class to which it belonged, whereas the number and position of pistils, or wives, determined the order. This “sexual system,” as Linnaeus called it, became extremely popular, though certainly not only because of its practicality but also because of its erotic connotations and its allusions to contemporary gender relations. French political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau used the system for his “Huit lettres élémentaires sur la botanique à Madame Delessert” (1772; “Eight Letters on the Elements of Botany Addressed to Madame Delessert”). English physician Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, used Linnaeus’s sexual system for his poem “The Botanic Garden” (1789), which caused an uproar among contemporaries for its explicit passages.

Linnaeus did not consider the sexual system to be his main contribution toward the “reformation of botany” to which he aspired. His main contribution came in the form of a booklet, Fundamenta Botanica (1736; “The Foundations of Botany”), that framed the principles and rules to be followed in the classification and naming of plants.

In 1735 Linnaeus met Boerhaave, who introduced Linnaeus to George Clifford, a local English merchant and banker who had close connections to the Dutch East India Company. Impressed by Linnaeus’s knowledge, Clifford offered Linnaeus a position as curator of his botanical garden. Linnaeus accepted the position and used this opportunity to expand certain chapters of Fundamenta Botanica in separate publications: Bibliotheca Botanica (1736; “The Library of Botany”); Critica Botanica (1737; “A Critique of Botany”), on botanical nomenclature; and Classes Plantarum (1738; “Classes of Plants”). He applied the theoretical framework laid down in these books in two further publications: Hortus Cliffortianus (1737), a catalogue of the species contained in Clifford’s collection; and Genera Plantarum (1737; “Genera of Plants”), which modified and updated definitions of plant genera first offered by Tournefort.

Genera Plantarum was considered by Linnaeus to be his crowning taxonomic achievement. In contrast to earlier attempts by other botanists at generic definition, which proceeded by a set of arbitrary divisions, Genera Plantarum presented a system based on what Linnaeus called the “natural characters” of genera—morphological descriptions of all the parts of flower and fruit. In contrast to systems based on arbitrary divisions (including his own sexual system), a system based on natural characters could accommodate the growing number of new species—often possessing different morphological features—pouring into Europe from its oversea trading posts and colonies.

Linnaeus’s distinction between artificial and natural classifications of organisms, however, raised the question of the mechanism that allowed organisms to fall into natural hierarchies. He could only answer this question with regard to species: species, according to Linnaeus, were similar in form because they derived from the same parental pair created by God at the beginning of the world. Many of his contemporaries shared a similar species concept. One such notable personage was French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, who was engaged in a similar all-encompassing natural history project at the time—though Buffon doubted the existence of natural genera, orders, or classes. Linnaeus tried to explain the existence of these divisions within the context of hybridization; however, the question of natural hierarchies would not receive a satisfying answer until English naturalist Charles Darwin explained similarity by common descent in his Origin of Species (1859).

Linnaeus returned to Sweden in 1738 and began a medical practice in Stockholm. In 1739 he married Sara Elisabeth. He practiced medicine until the early 1740s but longed to return to his botanical studies. A position became available at Uppsala University, and he received the chair in medicine and botany there in 1742. Linnaeus built his further career upon the foundations he had laid in the Netherlands. He used his international contacts to create a network of correspondents that provided him with seeds and specimens from all over the world. He then incorporated this material into the botanical garden at Uppsala, and these acquisitions helped him develop and refine the empirical basis for revised and enlarged editions of his major taxonomic works. During his lifetime he completed 12 editions of Systema Naturae, 6 editions of Genera Plantarum, 2 editions of Species Plantarum (“Species of Plants,” which succeeded the Hortus Cliffortianus in 1753), and a revised edition of Fundamenta Botanica (which was later renamed Philosophia Botanica [1751; “Philosophy of Botany”]). Furthermore, all these works appeared in countless pirated versions, translations, and popular adaptations in all major European languages.

Linnaeus’s most lasting achievement was the creation of binomial nomenclature, the system of formally classifying and naming organisms according to their genus and species. In contrast to earlier names that were made up of diagnostic phrases, binomial names (or “trivial” names, as Linnaeus himself called them) conferred no bias about the quality or value of plant species named. Rather, they served as labels by which a species could be universally addressed. This naming system was also implicitly hierarchical, as each species is classified within a genus. The first use of binomial nomenclature by Linnaeus occurred within the context of a small project in which students were asked to identify the plants consumed by different kinds of cattle. In this project, binomial names served as a type of shorthand for field observations. Despite the advantages of this naming system, binomial names were used consistently in print by Linnaeus only after the publication of Species Plantarum (1753).

In his own lifetime, Linnaeus became something of an institution in himself, as naturalists everywhere had to address him directly or at least his work in order to determine whether specimens in their collections were indeed new species. The rules of nomenclature that he put forward in his Philosophia Botanica rested on a recognition of the “law of priority,” the rule stating that the first properly published name of a species or genus takes precedence over all other proposed names. These rules became firmly established in the field of natural history and also formed the backbone of international codes of nomenclature—such as the Strickland Code (1842)—created for the fields of botany and zoology in the mid-19th century. The first edition of Species Plantarum and the 10th edition of Systema Naturae (1758) are the agreed starting points for botanical and zoological nomenclature, respectively.

Beyond his work in botany and scientific classification, Linnaeus directed a host of activities for the betterment of his home country. An ardent believer in cameralist economy, a “science” that attempted to improve bureaucratic practices in order to strengthen the monarchy’s position, Linnaeus held that a country’s welfare depended on science-based administration, and in 1739 he was among the founders of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. He also promoted the creation of chairs in economics at Swedish universities, organized public botanical excursions around Uppsala (sometimes with several hundred participants), and undertook research travels within Sweden to identify domestic products that could substitute for expensive imports. The result of these so-called patriotic projects was a series of publications that included Flora Lapponica (1737; “Plants of Lapland”), which had already been published during his stay in the Netherlands, Flora Suecica (1745; “Swedish Plants”), Fauna Suecica (1746; “Swedish Animals”), Ölandska och Gothländska resa (1741; “Travel to Öland and Gotland”), Västgöta resa (1747; “Travel to Western Gothia”), and Skånska resa (1751; “Travel to Scania”).

Linnaeus also sent a number of students on expeditions around the globe to collect exotic plants for acclimatization in Sweden. The most famous of these so-called “Linnaean apostles” include Pehr Kalm, who traveled through North America between 1748 and 1751; Daniel Solander, who accompanied British explorer James Cook on his first circumnavigation (1768–71); and Carl Peter Thunberg, who reached Japan in 1776.

Toward the end of his life, Linnaeus became interested in other aspects of the life sciences. Of greatest influence were his physico-theological writings, Oeconomia Naturae (1749; “The Economy of Nature”) and Politiae Naturae (1760; “The Politics of Nature”). Both works were of great importance to Charles Darwin. His studies of plant hybridization influenced the experimental tradition that led directly to the pea plant experiments of Austrian botanist Gregor Mendel. Other disciplines in which Linnaeus exerted some lasting influence included geology, mineralogy, entomology (through the various editions of Systema Naturae), pathology (by the classification of diseases laid down in Genera Morborum [1763; “Genera of Diseases”]), pharmacology (as a result of Materia Medica [1749; “The Materials of Healing”]), physiology (through his writings on plant sexuality), and embryology. These topics were also treated in the186 dissertations produced under Linnaeus’s guidance and collectively published under his name in Amoenitates Academicae (1749; “Academic Pleasantries”). The deeply religious side of Linnaeus was disclosed in the posthumously published Nemesis Divina (1968; “Divine Retribution”), a manuscript that explores the notion of divine retaliation. It meticulously details the ill fates befalling persons who, in Linnaeus’s eyes, have either misbehaved or committed offenses against him. The Nemesis Divina was intended as a lesson in morality for Linnaeus’s son, Carl.

Linnaeus had seven children with Sara Elisabeth, but only five survived to adulthood. In the late 1750s he purchased the farms of Hammarby, Sävja, and Edeby outside Uppsala, which allowed Linnaeus and his family to spend their summers in the country. In 1761 he was granted a Swedish patent of nobility, from which time he was known as Carl von Linné. After nearly one-third of Uppsala was destroyed by fire in 1766, he established a museum made of stone for his collections on a hill behind Hammarby. A stroke in 1774 left Linnaeus greatly weakened, and he died in 1778. Linnaeus’s only son, Carl, became his successor and the custodian of his collections. However, Carl died within a few years, and Sara Elisabeth sold Linnaeus’s collections and manuscripts to Sir James Edward Smith, founder of the Linnean Society of London.

Staffan Müller-Wille / Source: Britannica

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