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Linnaeus - an alternative view

20/12/2007

The birth of the 18th century botanist Carl Linnaeus was celebrated this year (2007). He was lauded worldwide for giving us the binominal system for naming species;

Homo sapiens, Felix filex, Anisomeridium ranunculosporum. In one stroke, he focused naturalists on the individual. One result of this was the unprecedented destruction of the planet's flora and fauna individual by individual. Victorian England became obsessed with pinning out all creatures great and small; rare plants were dug up and sold. Natural History Museums around the world are a product of this view and our own Natural History Museum is not an exception. Capture, kill and name every living thing. Millions of beetles were collected and pinned. Methods and chemicals for killing and preservation became big business. Taxidermy became the new art. Colour charts were created and standardised to allow naturalists to refer to the colours of nature accurately in texts. All this was done in the name of naming.

Naturalists with a heightened eye for observation rose to the top. They counted microscopic hairs on insects and classified leaf patterns. The obsession with naming reached its peak in the mid 19th century. Biologists loved the names. It made them sound important as they struggled to make the study of the living world a science. Physics and chemistry moved ahead with hypothesis and theories. Naturalists could only create names speaking of Formica rufa, Acrocephalus schoenobaenus or Anthocharis cardamines.

Darwin's trans-global voyage in the HMS Beagle was not unique in its day. Many such voyages took place at that time in the pursuit of naming. Darwin's single greatest gift was that of observation and out of the naming he articulated his wonder as to why the Creator should make so many creatures so similar, yet slightly different. Why not one type of beetle instead of 132,000 types? From this naming, pinning, preserving world came Darwin's genius giving us our greatest ever idea in biology, that of natural selection. The shy, original thinking acutely observing Charles Darwin turned our eye towards looking at interaction among individuals and the individuals with the physical landscape around them. Ecology was born as a science.

Text © Paul Whelan, 2007.
Image: Carl von Linne, Alexander Roslin, 1775. Currently owned by and hanging at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.