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Carl Linnaeus: the scientist who saw evidence for God in everything in nature

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Carl Linnaeus1 (1707–1778) is the Swedish scientist who brought into general use the system, universally used today, of classifying the whole of the natural world of all living organisms with two Latin words. He named thousands of plants and animals in this way, and has been called the ‘Father of Taxonomy’.2

The little botanist who skipped classes

Carl was born in Råshult in the south of Sweden in 1707. His father, Nils, was a Lutheran pastor and liked to converse in Latin, so it is said that Carl learned Latin before he learned Swedish. Nils, an avid gardener, used to decorate baby Carl’s crib with blossoms and give him flowers to play with. When the lad was four, Nils began teaching him the Latin names of plants. This was no small memory task for Carl, e.g. the humble tomato was called Solanum caule inermi herbaceo, folis pinnatis incisis, racemis simplicibus.3One day Nils told Carl that “he would not tell him any more names if he continued to forget them. After that the boy gave his whole mind to remembering them. This passion for names remained with him till the end of his life.”4

At school, eight years old and bored, Carl would sometimes skip classes to go and hunt for wild flowers; his fellow students dubbed him ‘the little botanist’. He did poorly at his lessons, until a friendly doctor suggested he should become a doctor, as at that time most medicines were derived from plants. This appealed to Carl, and he liked to play ‘doctors’ with his siblings, taking their pulses, and concocting make-believe herbal remedies from the botanical books in his father’s library to treat their imaginary illnesses.

The student who was appointed lecturer

In 1728, he was a student at Uppsala University. Here the professor of theology was Dr Olof Celsius, who was also a botanist, and the uncle of the Anders Celsius who invented the temperature scale we use today, as modified by Linnaeus.5 Olof happened to meet Linnaeus in the university garden and was surprised that he knew the long Latin names of all the plants there. He became Linnaeus’s benefactor, offering him a place to live and the use of his library. In 1729, Linnaeus handed him a thesis on pollination in plants that explained the role of the stamen (male part) and pistil (female part) in the formation of seeds, with pollen the sperm, seeds the ova, etc.6

Linnaeus indicated his distinction of humans from all other creatures by the name he gave us: Homo sapiens (wise man).

Although all this was scientifically correct,7 Linnaeus expounded it in colourful, anthropomorphic terms. Sample: “Love comes even to the plants. Males and females, even the hermaphrodites, hold their nuptials … . The actual petals of a flower contribute nothing to generation, serving only as a bridal bed which the great Creator has so gloriously prepared … in order that the bridegroom and bride may celebrate their nuptials with the greater solemnity.”6

As a result of this erudition, he was appointed lecturer in botany at Uppsala, although only a second-year student there himself. His lectures became so popular that often 300–400 people attended. He was later to use his ideas on plant reproductive processes as the basis for his system of plant classification.

In 1732, he undertook a tour of Lapland to look for new plants and animals, and possible valuable minerals.8 It was here that he found large quantities of the twinflower, later known as Linnaea borealis, that became his personal emblem. He then visited Germany, Holland, England, and France.

Physician, husband, and professor

Swedish House of Nobility, Wikimedia Commons

 

The Coat of Arms of Carl von Linné: the red, black and green thirds of the shield represent the animal, mineral, and vegetable kingdoms. The central egg denotes nature. The flower crest is Linnaea borealis.

In 1735, in Holland, he quickly received his medical degree at the University of Harderwijk, with a thesis that he had written in Sweden on ‘A new hypothesis as to the cause of intermittent fevers’.9 He theorized that the cause was living on clay soil.10He was now 28 and entitled to practise as a medical doctor. In 1739, he was appointed Physician to the Swedish Admiralty. He also became the first President of the newly established Swedish Academy of Science.11 Now earning enough to support a family, he married his fiancée, Sara Lisa Moraea. They produced seven children.

In 1741, Linnaeus was appointed Professor of Medicine at the University of Uppsala, but he exchanged places with another professor and so became responsible for botany and natural history instead. He often held lectures in the university garden, using the plants to illustrate aspects of botany. He called his best students his ‘apostles’ and sent them on journeys of exploration around the world. One, David Solander, sailed with James Cook aboard the Endeavour (1768–71) and brought back to Europe the first major plant collections from Australia and the South Pacific. These students also spread Linnaeus’s binomial system of taxonomy around the world without his having to leave Sweden to do so. His biographer, Wilfred Blunt, writes: “Nothing speaks more clearly of Linnaeus’s success as a teacher than the fact that no less than 23 of his pupils became professors.” 12

In 1753, Linnaeus was knighted with the Order of the Polar Star by Swedish King Adolf Fredrick, who also proposed his ennoblement in 1757, which came into effect after approval by the Privy Council in 1761; from then on he was also known as Carl von Linné.

Linnaeus died in 1778, and his library, manuscripts, and natural history collections13 were purchased from his widow by English natural historian Sir James Edward Smith, who founded the Linnean14 Society of London in 1788. Linnaeus has been depicted on numerous Swedish stamps and banknotes. Other things named after him include the twinflower genus Linnaea, the crater Linné on the moon, and the cobalt sulphide mineral Linnaeite, discovered in Sweden in 1845.

Linnaean classification system

In 1735, the first edition of his Systema Naturae (The System of Nature) was published.15 It presented three kingdoms of nature: stones (or minerals), plants, and animals, with the latter two subdivided into classes, orders, genera, species, and varieties. The tenth edition, published in 1758, had animals assigned with binomial names, and is considered the beginning of zoological nomenclature. It covered about 4,400 species of animals.

The first edition of his Species Plantarum (The Species of Plants), published in 1753, is considered the beginning of all formal botanical taxonomy. It covered about 7,700 then known plants.

In the Linnaean binomial (‘two-name’) classification, the first word describes the genus and is the same for every species within that genus; the second defines the individual species.16 For example, the dog is Canis familiaris. Canis is the genus or group for dogs, wolves, coyotes, and jackals, and familiaris identifies the domestic dog. Note: for all these animals to exist today, then Noah needed to take only a single pair of the Canis genus aboard the Ark.

Being in Latin (rather than in Swedish or English), the names are the same in every country in the world.17 In technical papers, sometimes the genus and species name is followed by the author of the name, and sometimes the year it was named. Many simply have ‘L.’ if Linnaeus was the namer, e.g. Canis familiaris, L. 1758.

As people are obviously not stones or plants, Linnaeus placed humans in the kingdom of animals, in the class of mammals, and the order of primates. This was not an evolutionary classification. In fact Linnaeus indicated his distinction of humans from all other creatures by the name he gave us: Homo sapiens (wise man).18

Linnaeus was a creationist

Linnaeus believed that he was God’s chosen instrument for revealing in a precise way the divinely ordered works of Creation. His writings have many references to God as Creator, E.g. in the preface to a late edition of his Systema Naturae he wrote: “Creationis telluris est gloria Dei ex opere Naturae per Hominem solum.” (Earth’s creation is the glory of God, as seen by man from the works of Nature.)

Linnaeus did not believe in evolution, just variation within major groups, which is what creationists accept today.

As a creationist he initially shared the then prevalent view that each species had originally been specially created by God. He wrote: “There are as many species as the Infinite Being produced diverse forms in the beginning.”19 In the course of his studies he encountered hybridization, and came to realize (correctly) that the created kinds could include similar species, and even new genera. Today the Oxford Dictionary defines ‘species’ as “a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding”. In creationist biology, if two creatures can interbreed, at least up to hybridization with true fertilization, then the two creatures are regarded as descendants from the same created kind.

Linnaea-borealis

Linnaeus’s favourite emblem, Linnaea borealis, commonly called a twinflower.

The idea of ‘fixity of species’ came from ancient writers like the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Also in the Latin (Vulgate) translation of the Bible, the Hebrew word for ‘kind’ (mîn) in Genesis 1:11, 12, 21, 24 & 25 was translated variously with the two Latin words species and genus (plural genera). The meanings of the Linnaean species and the biblical species diverged over time, which led to ambiguity. Jonathan Sarfati comments: “The Bible talks of fixity of kinds, which in the Latin translation became fixity of species, but then an unwarranted switch took place to fixity of Linnaean species.” 20

Linnaeus did not believe in evolution, just variation within major groups, which is what creationists accept today. In his lifetime, he was called ‘the second Adam’,21,22 because the first Adam named the animals (Genesis 2:19–20), and Linnaeus renamed them in Latin.

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