Born three hundred years ago, the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné became one of the most notorious figures on the European scientific scene. He had a very high opinion of himself, as is evident from the autobiography in which he spared himself no applause for his achievements: “There has been no greater botanist or zoologist. Nobody has written more books, in such detail, as systematically, and on the basis of his own experience. Nobody has revolutionized science so thoroughly to begin a new era.” However, he was not alone in singing his praises, as many thinkers of the time recognized his greatness. Jean-Jacques Rousseau sent him a message that read: “Tell him I know no greater man on earth.” And Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: “With the exception of Shakespeare and Spinoza, I know no one among the no longer living who has influenced me more strongly.”
Becoming the second Adam
The 18th century is often referred to as “the age of classification” and Linné was its most typical representative. Even after three centuries, Linné is remembered mostly because he created the efficient and simple system of nomenclature and classification for living beings which is still used today. Systematization was not, though, his only scientific passion. He also had the visionary idea of recreating paradise on Earth in the university town in Sweden where he lived. He wanted to gather plants and animals from all over the world and breed them in such a way that they could survive the relatively unfriendly Swedish climate.
Linné saw himself as a second Adam. In paradise the biblical Adam knew the names of all the animals put there by God. Linné wished to recreate this natural paradise in the botanical gardens of Sweden’s Uppsala. He thought that the original biblical paradise was on one of the smaller tropical islands from which plants and animals spread across the rest of the world, adapting to other, colder climatic conditions, but remaining more or less unchanged. His “scientific” idea was that this otherwise spontaneous adaptation of originally tropical plants could be artificially encouraged. He was certain that if the plants were able to adapt to a different climate before, they could be made to do so again.
A new heaven on Earth
His mission was to create a new heaven on Earth in Sweden. He sent his assistants and students to all the faraway places of the world so they would bring him exotic plants, which he would then try to adapt to the unfavorable Swedish climate. He first planted the specimens from warmer places in the southern part of the country, then gradually moved them toward Uppsala. From China, for example, his envoys tried to transfer tea plants and rice as well as mulberries on which silkworms could be bred.
Linné’s idea of growing as many plants as possible in Sweden was driven mostly by his desire to make Sweden an economically independent country. At the time, economy was interpreted in a very mythical way. All of a country’s food supply problems would be solved, it was believed, if scientists succeeded in creating paradise-like conditions, an ecologic harmony that God had originally created in paradise and nowhere else. Some scholars claimed that God had spread the treasures of nature across different parts of the world to encourage international trade, but Linné did not agree.
However, the megalomaniac scheme of the visionary naturalist hit an insurmountable obstacle, the Swedish weather. Despite his cunning attempts to adapt exotic plants gradually to the local climate, only a few managed to survive a longer period in their new environment. It is interesting that Linné almost made an important breakthrough with the calorie-rich potato, but he was unfortunately convinced that it was poisonous. It was supposed to be related to the very poisonous deadly nightshade (atropa belladonna), so he was certain that even pigs would not touch it. Sadly nobody hit upon the idea of cooking only the plant’s bulbs and eating them as we eat potato today. Nevertheless, they had already discovered that potato could be used to make liquor and even powder for wigs, which were at the time still very fashionable. The author of this idea actually became the first woman to be accepted into the Swedish Academy of Science and the only one who received this honor before the beginning of the 20th century.
Names and surnames for plants
While gathering exotic plants all over the world, Linné’s emissaries introduced local scientists to his system for classifying living beings. This was quickly accepted on account of its simplicity, becoming much more successful than his idea of duplicating paradise in Sweden.
Linné’s system is very effective because it describes any plant or animal with only two Latin names, which is similar to the way people identify themselves with a name and a surname. He chose Latin names to make the system universal and prevent some nations from feeling left out. Before, naturalists used different and often highly impractical methods to name nature. It was quite common that a plant would get a descriptive name which was fifteen or more words long.
It is not so well known that his system of plant classification was very controversial when it was first published. His method of classification was criticized as being unnatural, a system that he had chosen to force and divide plants into imaginary groups. Another aspect of his method presenting a great problem for his critics was his decision to classify the plants according to their reproductive organs.
This might seem strange today, but it was not until the end of the 17th century that naturalists discovered that plants also reproduce sexually. Linné’s principle of classifying plant species was based on “plant marriages”, as he explicitly described his method. He introduced a system of classification derived from the number of males (stamens) and females (pistils) present in a particular plant marriage.
An immoral classification of plants?
In his fundamental work Systema Naturae, first published in 1735, Linné began by dividing the kingdom of plants into classes according to the number, size and position of the male members of the plant marriage, today called stamens. These classes were then further divided into orders depending on the number, relative size and position of the female members of the marriage or pistils. Based on the structure of their flowers or fruits these orders were then divided into genera which, in turn, were divided into species according to the leaf structure or other characteristics of the plants.
Linné’s system of classification is of course an abstract creation. Even though it was founded on the structure of vegetal reproductive organs, it was not derived from actual knowledge of the way these organs function, but aimed at sorting plants into an efficient system and naming them. It was based only on the structure of the reproductive organs and had nothing to do with their function.
Of course, the guardians of public morals of the time wanted to protect young girls from the bad influences of an education in botany. Linné spoke of the principal organs of plants as of a man and a woman on their wedding night and used other suggestive names such as blanket and bride’s bed.
In the tenth edition of his book Systema Naturae he introduced a new term Mammalia which comprised the large group of animals that we still call mammals. It is interesting that the common characteristic he chose to name this group after were woman’s breasts, even though he could have easily decided for a different trait typical of this group. In the same edition of the book he also introduced the term Homo sapiens referring to mankind.