Commentary & sustainability analysis
Linnaeus’s system of classification followed the principles of Aristotelian logic which was taught in secondary schools all over Europe. Arranging things into classes was called classification, and the subsequent segregation of these classes was then called logical division. The group to be divided was the ‘genus’ and the parts into which it was divided were the ‘species’. ‘Genus’ and ‘species’ were therefore terms from Aristotelian logic acquiring their specialized biological usage from Linnaeus’s predecessors, in particular John Ray and Tournefort. The binomial expresses both resemblance and difference at the same time: resemblance and relationship through the generic name — difference and distinctness through the specific epithet (by convention the second word in a binomial is the ‘specific epithet’, the combination of genus and species being called the ‘species name’).
The strength of the Linnaean system was that it provided a standardised, simple, logical and transparent method for classifying, naming, describing and cataloguing organisms that was desperately needed at this time when specimens were flooding into Europe from its colonies around the world. Its success depended on its general acceptance and its utility was (eventually) acknowledged and admired by virtually the entire scientific community with the exception of a few doggedly resistant French, German and English botanists and the stubborn Englishman Miller at the Chelsea Physic Garden. Linnaeus had spent a month in England in 1736 trying to convince the skeptical English but without much success, although his abilities were evident to a range of scientists including Sir Hans Sloane and Johann Dillenius, not to mention the influential merchants Peter Collinson and John Ellis. Joseph Banks was a keen supporter of his ‘system’.
Botanical historian Alan Morton, though praising Linnaeus’s contribution to classification and nomenclature, draws attention to its theoretical limitations:
‘Linnaeus was the master of the botany of his time, and his influence on the development of botanical science powerful and lasting … his work demonstrated the success of his improved methods of description, diagnosis and nomenclature, and made detailed systematic observation the guide and criterion in taxonomy. … In his theoretical ideas, on the contrary, Linnaeus was a man of the past who never escaped from the restricting circle of idealist-essentialist thought in which his early high school training had confined him. This was the background to the contradictory statements in the Philosophia, to his narrow view of botany, his blindness to the advances in plant physiology and anatomy, [and] his unquestioning acceptance of special creation’.
Though a deeply religious and conservative man, his scientific skepticism was prepared to challenge the wisdom of his day, the following quote hinting at the theory of evolution and some conflict between his scientific and religious beliefs, as he was convinced of the divine special creation of immutable species:
‘Yet man does recognise himself [as an animal]. But I ask you and the whole world for a generic differentia between man and ape which conforms to the principles of natural history, I certainly know of none… If I were to call man ape or vice versa, I should bring down all the theologians on my head. But perhaps I should still do it according to the rules of science’.
Linnaeus Letter to Johann Gmelon (14 Jan 1747), quoted in Mary Gribbin, Flower Hunters. 2008. p. 56
‘One can link Linnaeus through his student Solander and the Fosters to Humboldt and the founding of biogeography, through Solander, Robert Brown, and Humbolt to Darwin, Joseph Hooker, Huxley, Wallace, and the establishment of the theory of evolution.’
It may be wondered why a Swedish botanist should have such influence on the botanists of Europe and especially Britain; people like Banks and others, but the simplicity and logic of Linnaeus’s taxonomic system opened up the world of natural history to everyone and heralded the later Victorian passion for nature. His arrogance no doubt added to his charisma, Jean Jacques Rousseau expressing his admiration by declaring ‘I know no greater man on earth’ which no doubt fanned the flames of Linnaeus’s conceit.