Organization Man

Carl Linnaeus, born 300 years ago, brought order to nature’s blooming, buzzing confusion

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Many of his ideas now seem ludicrous. He believed epilepsy could be caused by washing one's hair, and leprosy caught by eating herring worms. He persisted in the archaic belief that swallows wintered at the bottom of lakes. Others were quaint: he devised a clock based on the opening and closing times of various flowers.

But many of his other views were surprisingly modern. 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."

His conception of a vengeful deity didn't help his equanimity. Ever the cataloger, he collated a file of some 200 instances of what he considered divine retribution meted out to errant mortals. Published after his death, Nemesis Divina pictures a fire-and-brimstone deity not unlike cartoonist Gary Larson's caricature of God at his computer, forefinger poised over the SMITE key. The self-doubting Linnaeus never outgrew his dread that the finger was about to fall.

During bouts of melancholy his family was a consolation (he was a devoted father to his seven children, five of whom survived early childhood), as were his pets, especially a guenon monkey called Diana and a raccoon named Sjubb. And he could always turn to his beloved plants for comfort: "I have no time to think of illness, Flora comes hastening with all her beautiful companions."

Such unquenchable joy in nature is one of the most appealing qualities of the man, and one of the reasons Swedes venerate him. This May 23, the annual Linnaeus Day, the streets of Uppsala will ring loudly with tercentennial tributes to the "flower king" of Scandinavia. I hope that the Uppsala cafés will revive the tradition of baking Linnaeus cream cakes, iced with his silhouette, and that there will be a celebratory bottling of Linnaeus liqueur. From my home in antipodean New Zealand—almost as far from Sweden as it is possible to be—I, too, will raise a glass (of aquavit) to the inventor of science's universal language, nature's chief librarian, and, as one of his contemporaries described him, "the most compleat naturalist the world has ever seen."

Vivat Linnaeus!

Kennedy Warne was the founding editor of New Zealand Geographic.


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