Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Some Linnaeus Links

Here are some exerpts from my collection of Web articles about Linnaeus. I think they give a good hint at the variety and complexity of their subject.

  • Linnaeus: The Name Giver from National Geographic:

    ....Find the "natural method" of arranging plants into groups, and you would have discovered God's own secret logic of biological creation, just as Isaac Newton had discovered God's physical mathematics. Linnaeus knew that he hadn't achieved that, not even with his 24-class sexual system, which was convenient but artificial. He couldn't see, couldn't imagine, that the most natural classification of species reflects their degree of relatedness based on evolutionary descent. But his passion for order--for seeking a natural order--did move taxonomy toward the insights later delivered by Charles Darwin.

    As for nomenclature, it contributes to the same purpose. "If you do not know the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost too," he wrote in Philosophia Botanica. Naming species, like arranging them, became increasingly problematic as more and more were discovered; the old-fashioned method, linking long chains of adjectives and references into fully descriptive labels, grew unwieldy.

  • Organization Man: Carl Linnaeus, born 300 years ago, brought order to nature's blooming, buzzing confusion from Smithsonian Magazine, May, 2007.

    ...He foreshadowed Darwin in his belief in a universal struggle for survival. He was the first to classify human beings in the same genus as other primates, and he grouped whales with mammals (previously they had been considered fish). He advocated biological control as a means of dealing with insect pests (he was particularly keen to find the invertebrate "lion" that would control bedbugs), and he understood the importance of biodiversity: "I do not know how the world could persist gracefully if but a single animal species were to vanish from it," he wrote in his journal. He even conjectured that micro-organisms "smaller than the motes dancing in a beam of light" might be responsible for transmitting contagious diseases--long before medicine embraced the idea of pathogens. Linnaeus dabbled in aquaculture, successfully growing pearls in freshwater mussels. And he gave an important tweak to the Celsius scale of temperature measurement. Anders Celsius, a Linnaeus contemporary, had designated the boiling point of water to be 0 degrees and the freezing point to be 100. It was Linnaeus' idea to flip the scale.

    Though he didn't follow his father into the ministry, Linnaeus remained a devout Lutheran throughout his life, despite the clash of his scientific views with his theological conclusions. Faith led him to believe that human beings are "candles in God's palace," reflecting the "creator's shining majesty." Science took him to a far bleaker conclusion. "Pathologically," he wrote, "you are a swollen bubble till you burst, dangling from a single strand of hair in one brief moment of fleeting time." The man who classified the living world even wondered why there was any diversity in nature at all. Why did the Creator not make the earth out of cheese, he mused, "which we worms could have gnawed while we grew up, lived, and multiplied?"

    Linnaeus struggled with pendulum-like swings between exuberance and depression, ego and angst. At one moment he was God's chosen instrument, at the next a miserable failure. "Had I had rope and English courage," he wrote to a colleague, "I should long ago have hanged myself." Even when he was made a member of the Swedish nobility in 1762, taking the name von Linné, he chose as part of his heraldic emblem an unprepossessing Lapland flower called Linnaea borealis--a plant named after him. He describes the delicate species as "lowly, insignificant, disregarded, flowering but for a brief space," adding that it was named "from Linnaeus who resembles it."

  • UCMP Linnaeus page at University of California Museum of Paleontology's Web site. It features a portrait of Linnaeus as a young man, wearing a traditional Lapp costume (acquired during his collecting trip in Lapland in 1731).
    In his early years, Linnaeus believed that the species was not only real, but unchangeable -- as he wrote, Unitas in omni specie ordinem ducit (The invariability of species is the condition for order [in nature]). But Linnaeus observed how different species of plant might hybridize, to create forms which looked like new species. He abandoned the concept that species were fixed and invariable, and suggested that some -- perhaps most -- species in a genus might have arisen after the creation of the world, through hybridization. In his attempts to grow foreign plants in Sweden, Linnaeus also theorized that plant species might be altered through the process of acclimitization. Towards the end of his life, Linnaeus investigated what he thought were cases of crosses between genera, and suggested that, perhaps, new genera might also arise through hybridization.
  • Linne Herbarium's "Carl Linnaeus: Botanical History"
    Nils Linnaeus was a devoted amateur botanist and gardener. His enthusiasm was infectious on the young Carl who early in life becomes interested in botany and at the age of 5 got his own garden to take care of. In 1717 Carl began school in Växjö. His parents had early decided that their son should, like his father, become a priest. Carl was not interested, he preferred to spend his time in the nature. In school therefor he was called "little botanicus". He was not successful in school and the teachers advised Nils against to let his son become a priest. After advise from the teacher in natural science, Dr. Rothman, Carl instead got permission to study medicine.
  • Carl Linnaeus--Botanical History--Department of Phanerogamic Botany--Swedish Museum of Natural History. The biography matches the one above, but there are links to other resources of interest.
  • Uppsala University's "Linne Online"
    On this website Uppsala University presents research, with the origin taken from the works of one of the most famous professors through its history, namely Carl Linnaeus (Carl von Linné) (1707 - 1778). You can learn more about:
    • The Life of Linnaeus--childhood, schools, carreer and family
    • Linnaeus and Pharmacy--a journey among the pharmaceuticals of Nature
    • Plants and Animals--biological diversity in the 18th century and today
    • Physics and the Cosmos--what Linnaeus did not know about the Cosmos
    • The History of Ideas--Linnaeus, his epoch, his view of nature and a journey through the history of ideas
    • Linnaeus and ecology--Linnaeus' thoughts of "The Economy of Nature"
  • Linnaeus2007--The Linnaeus Celebration. Not much about the man, but a lot of interesting things.
  • The Linnean Society has a celebration, and biographical material. Perhaps by the end of the year they will have something more impressive on the Web.
  • The King of Flowers: Carl Linnaeus, 1707-1778 from The Swedish Institute's Linnaeus300 Web site. This Website is developing into something quite impressive.
    Legend has it that young Carl ingested a love of plants and flowers already in the womb, as his mother Christina Brodersonia feasted her eyes on the magnificent and unusual flowers in her husband's garden during her pregnancy. Carl Linnaeus wrote poetically himself about being born "just when the spring was at its loveliest and the cuckoo was proclaiming summer" - in May, that is. According to the myth, his cradle was garlanded with luscious flowers.
  • The Linnaean Correspondence--Life of Linnaeus. An interesting biographical sketch, timeline, and an index to manuscripts and letters viewable on-line.
  • Carl Linnaeus - Carl von Linné from Uppsala University's Systematic Botany Department
  • The Unfinished Journey of Carl Linnaeus--by Paul Alan Cox, a charming essay/lecture on Linnaeus' collecting trip in Lapland, with a dramatic interlude.
  • The Class of Carl Linnaeus by Jim Endersby from Times Online.

    In 1771, the Scottish naturalist William Smellie used an article in the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (of which he was the main compiler) to attack the "alluring seductions" of the Linnaean system of plant classification. Smellie accused Linnaeus of taking his analogies "beyond all decent limits," claiming that the Swedish naturalist's books were enough to make even the most "obscene romance writer" blush. His outrage was shared by the English naturalist William Goodenough, who was appalled by Linnaeus' "disgusting names, his nomenclatural wantonness, vulgar lasciviousness, and the gross prurience of his mind."

    The subject of all this moral outrage was the methodus propria of plant classification, devised by the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné, better known by the Latinized version of his name as Linnaeus.

  • Strange Science Linnaeus article
    From the time it was introduced, the Linnaean system had both competition and detractors. Michel Adanson of France proposed a different system that organized plants globally, and incorporated indigenous terms to name them. (Linnaeus scoffed that many of those terms "can scarcely be pronounced by our tongues.") Buffon, meanwhile, argued that nature "advances by imperceptible nuances" that no naming system could capture. If Linnaeus's critics chafed at his naming system, they were truly disgusted by something else he publicized: Plants reproduce sexually. Up to that time, the gentle study of botany had been sufficiently delicate to serve as a pastime for well-bred ladies. Then Linnaeus ruined everything. The Reverend Richard Polwhele observed "boys and girls botanizing together" with horror; the Bishop of Carlisle doubted that "virtuous students" would be able to follow the indecent analogies. (Not everybody was as shocked as you might suspect. In the mid 18th century, a Finnish medical student traveling through Quebec, Canada observed that even "priests and Jesuits," apparently inspired by Linnaeus's finds about plant reproduction, cheerfully collecting.) "Who would have thought that bluebells, lilies and onions could be up to such immorality?" sniffed academician Johann Siegesbeck. But Linnaeus had the last laugh; he named an ugly little weed Siegesbeckia orientalis.


Larry said...

Wow! What a nice collection of links you have provided! I read the National Geographic article but the others are new to me.

I always get a kick out of identifying a plant or mushroom which still bears the name Linnaeus after the binomial, indicating that his original nomenclature has survived these past centuries of taxonomical change.

Rebecca Clayton said...

If it says "Linnaeus," the genus and species name haven't changed, but if it says "(Linnaeus)" with parentheses, it means the species name is the one Linnaeus gave it, but it's been placed in another genus for some reason.

Those authority names can tell some interesting stories--there have been a lot of colorful taxonomists.