Saturday, March 2, 2013

Linnaeus: The Compleat Naturalist

Overview

Front and back bovers of Linnaeus: The Compleat Naturalist.
Front Cover of Linnaeus: The Compleat NaturalistBack Cover of Linnaeus: The Compleat Naturalist
Linnaeus: The Compleat Naturalist is a book by Wilfrid Blunt that was first published in 1971. It was updated in 2001 (hardcover) and 2004 (softcover) with the addition of an introduction by William T. Stearn, illustrations, a bibliography by Gavin D. Bridson, and two appendices. The first appendix is Linnaean Classification, Nomenclature, and Method by Stearn and the second appendix is Systematics and Taxonomy in Modern Biology by C.J. Humphreys. The first appendix is a very good introduction to the Linnaean nomenclature.

In the biography, Blunt walks us through the highlights of Linnaeus’ life (1707 - 1778), at times using much of Linnaeus’ own writing. Blunt describes the arc of Linnaeus’ life in three parts: Part 1: The Years of Struggle 1707-35, Part 2: In Search of Fame 1735-8, and Part III: The Prince of Botanists 1738-78. Included are the journeys that Linnaeus took both in and out of Sweden. The journeys were an important force that shaped his thinking and helped spread his ideas, much like other scientists in Age of Enlightenment. The book describes his:

  • Lapland Journeys
  • Germany and Holland travels
  • A month in England
  • Provincial journeys in Southern Sweden, to Skåne and West Gothland.

The book includes helpful maps with routes for Linnaeus’ journeys in and around Sweden so you can make geographical sense of where he went.

Blunt doesn’t hesitate to point out Linnaeus’ less desirable behaviors like when he is whiney or a blowing his own horn or even out right fibbing. In regard to the last behavior, there is the incident when Linnaeus invented a whole leg of one of his Lapland journeys in order to exaggerate (and not very convincingly the experts say) the hardship he went through. Blunt writes: “It is understandable, if regrettable, that Linnaeus wanted to impress the officers of the Society by exaggerating his distances and miseries: he felt that they had treated him stingily and hoped to extract more money from them; what is curious, however, is that he should have submitted to them an account containing such clumsy inconsistencies.” [Part I - Chapter 5: The Lapland Journey: Luele and Torne Lappmark]

At times, it seems Linnaeus is treated a little rough in Blunt’s hands. For example, there was an incident when Linnaeus was in Germany in 1735 on his way by coach to Hamburg. An angry farmer with an axe stops the coach and when Linnaeus speaks up, the farmer comes toward him of which Linnaeus writes “Had it not been for my companions, I would have taken him on.” Blunt writes: “How accurate, one may wonder, is this account of the brave young man so eager to fight, single-handed, a raging farmer armed with an axe, desisting only when restrained by his fellow travellers or in order to spare them an ugly spectacle? And was it in Latin that he addressed him?” [Part II - Chapter 1: Germany] Ouch.

I approached the autobiography with a degree of naiveté because I knew really nothing about Linnaeus, except that he laid the foundations for binomial nomenclature. Even after the less than flattering portrait of him in this biography, I can say that I came away with an appreciation of Linnaeus, his peculiarities and the hardships he endured to make a name for himself, raise a family and pursue his passion: naming things.

 

Penchant for Order

The essay in the first appendix (by William T. Stearn) sums it up this way: “The basis of Linnaeus’ achievement was his strong sense of order.”

Blunt makes this observation about Linnaeus’ sense of order: “It was the same through his whole life. In Holland, where he was to spend three years, he never noted Rembrandt or Frans Hals. Still more strangely he never mentioned the great flower painters Jan van Huysum and Rachel Ruysch, both of whom were still alive and working in Amsterdam. It was said of Linnaeus, ‘God created, Linnaeus set in order’; but what man created, Linnaeus largely ignored, except where is archaeological, ethnographical or practical interests were aroused. Perhaps, however, it was just as well that he had these blind spots: a tenth of the task he was to set himself would have been a lifetime’s work for an ordinary man (as he frequently said). Moreover, he did possess what is none too common in scientists: literary talent of a very personal kind.” [Part I - Chapter 3: Uppsala] A pat and slap?

In the Introduction to a translation (by Stephen Freer) of Philosophia Botanica, Paul Alan Cox writes: “Let us not forget that in Linnaeus' day biology was still strongly Aristotelian, with the search for a Platonic eidos or natural form being the goal of every biologist.” It gives some context to the passion with which Linnaeus worked to sort out the jumbled classification of the world.

Linnaeus’ classification system is order by sexual parts of flowers: the stamens (male organs) and stigma and style (female organs). He created 24 classes. Class I is for plants with one stamen, Class II is for plants with two stamens, and so on up to ten. After ten, classification isn’t linear anymore. For example, Class XIII is “twenty or more stamens fixed to the receptacle.” The Class XXIV is for plants which the fruit-body is concealed. Classes are then broken down into orders based on the number of styles and stigmas. The system was full of imagery that Linnaeus did not hesitate to call into use. For Class XIII (Polyandria) he describes it as “Mariti viginti & ultra in odem cum femina thalamo” translated as “Twenty males or more in the same bed with the female” [Systema naturae] as in poppies and lindens. It’s no wonder some called him a “botanical pornographer” and his system met resistance by those shocked by such imagery.

Left: Clavis Systematis Sexualis (Linnaeus’ key to sexual classification of plants); Right: A modern copy of an Ehret engraving depicting Linnaeus’ system (Photographed at the British Museum, Englightment Gallery, July 2011).
Clavis Systematis Sexualis (Linnaeus’s Key to Sexual Classification of Plants)A modern copy of an Ehret engraving depicting Linnaeus’s system

 

Nomen Triviale

Before Linnaeus, there had been many attempts at classifying plants. In Philosophia Botanica, Linnaeus summarizes all the efforts that went before him with the likes of Cesalpino, Morrison, Ray, Boerhaave, and Tournefort to name a few. Aphorism #59 reads “RAY (28) formerly a fructist (28) eventually became a corollist (29).” (Such is the intrigue of botany?)

Today, Linnaeus’ system of classification (based on flower parts) is not used, but his contribution to the separation of taxonomy and nomenclature endures.

  • Taxonomy is the process of defining and naming groups of biological organisms on the basis of shared characteristics. For example, the species name (nomen specificum) serves as a diagnostic phrase for the plant. For the plant Linnaea borealis the diagnostic phrase is “floribus geminatis”. It’s just two words in this example, but could be much longer.
  • Nomenclature refers to the assignment of a word or phrase to an object, in this case a biological organism. The specific epithet (nomen triviale) serves as a catch-word, an easy way to remember a species. The specific epithet designates the species. Though not the first to use a catch-word, Linnaeus codified it. So in the binomial name (binomial, binomen, or scientific name) of a plant, the second part is really the specific epithet, not the species name.

As an example, let’s look at Jasminum officinale or common jasmine. You can find it on page 7 of Species Plantarum (page in the Biodiversity Heritage Library, page in Botanicus). In the entry, the generic name is “JASMINUM”, the diagnosis or nomen specificum is “follis oppofitis pinnatis”, and the nomen triviale is “officinale” (in the margin of the page). Other data included in the entry are references to other diagnoses and synonyms in other works (e.g., Hortus Cliffortinaus) and an indication of habitat (e.g. India).

Page from Species Plantarum showing Jasminum officinale.Page from Species Plantarum Showing Jasminum officinale

In the preparation of this post, I actually had trouble finding Linnaea borealis, Linnaeus’ namesake plant, in Species Plantarum. I tried figuring it out based on number of stamens, four, but stopped at TETRANDIA - Class IV. I didn’t glance down the chart to DIDYNAMIA - Class XIV - two long stamens and two short ones. And, there it is on page 631 of Species.

What’s the best way to find an entry for a plant in Species Plantarum? One way I discovered is to go to Tropicos and search for the plant. On the detail page of each plant there is a link to the Species Plantarum page (if it exists) in the Biodiversity Heritage Library and Botanicus. So L. borealis or J. officinale are mentioned in Species Plantarum; Cercidiphyllum japonicum (Katsura Tree) is not since it was discovered after Linnaeus.

 

Connecting Plant Names with People

In Section VII Names of Philosophia Botanica, Linnaeus writes that “If you do not know the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost too.” [Aphorism #210] Later he writes that “generic names that have been formed to perpetuate the memory of a botanist who has done excellent service should be religiously preserved.” [Aphorism #238]. And in that spirit, here are a few of the plants and the people they commemorate that are mentioned in Linnaeus The Compleat Naturalist:

  • Dr. Olof Celsius (1670 - 1756) was a benefactor to young Linnaeus who, in gratitude, named the genus Celsia in his honor.
  • Olof Rudbeck the Younger (1660 - 1740) was a benefactor to young Linnaeus who, in gratitude, named Rudbeckia in his honor.
  • Linnaeus’ trademark flower Linnaea borealis, named in his honor by the Dutch botanist, Gronovius (1686 - 1762).
  • Elias Tillandz (1640 - 1693). Tillandz is honored by the genus of epiphytic plants, Tillandsia. The story goes that Linnaeus named these plants after Tillandz who disliked travel by sea. His name meaning “till lands” or “by land” in Swedish.
  • Johann Heinrich von Spreckelsen was a lawyer and plant lover that Linnaeus encountered during his time in Germany. The German botanist, Lorenz Heister (1683 - 1758) honored von Spreckelson with the genus Sprekelia
  • Isaac Lawson was a Scottish lawyer who helped fund the first publication of Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae. Linnaeus paid him gratitude by naming the genus Lawsonia (henna of the East) in his honor.
  • Jan Frederik Gronovius (1686 - 1762) was another benefactor in the first publication of System Naturae honored with the genus Gronovia (a climbing plant).
  • Peter Artedi (1705 - 1735) was a Swedish naturalist and friend of Linnaeus. Artedi died unexpectedly and Linnaeus fulfilling a promise published Artedi’s work. Linnaeus also named a plant in the Umbelliferae family, Artedia, in his memory.
  • Peter Collinson (1694 - 1768) was an English Quaker, businessman, and avid gardener honored with the genus Collinsonia in the mint family.
  • Johann Bartsch (1709 - 1738) was a German physician recommended by Linnaeus for a post as a doctor in Suriname. Six months after his arrival there, Bartsch died. Linnaeus named the genus Bartsia in his honor.
  • Johann Siegesbeck was a St. Petersburg academician and vocal critic of Linnaeus’ sexual system. Siegesbeck is (dis)honored with the genus Siegesbeckia which Stern describes as an “unpleasant, small-flowered weed.”
  • Christopher Tärnström (1703 - 1745) was a student of Linnaeus who travelled to and died in modern day Vietnam. (Linnaeus used the term “apostle” to refer to his students who traveled overseas to study plants and keep Linnaeus supplied with plants and information.) The tropical genus Ternstroemia is named for Tärnström.
  • Pehr Kalm (1716 - 1779) was a Linnaean apostle who explored North America and returned with a number of new plant species that made it into Species Plantarum. The genus of evergreen shrubs Kalmia is named in his honor.
  • Pehr Osbeck (1723 - 1805) was a Linnaean apostle who botanized in China and is honored with the genus Osbeckia, native to the Eastern Asia.
  • Pehr Löfling (1729 - 1756) was a Linnaean apostle who collected in Spain and South America. He died in Guyana and is commemorated with the genus Loeflingia in the pink family (Caryophyllacea).
  • Baron Clas Alströmer (1736 - 1794) was a Linnaean apostle who travelled throughout Europe and is the namesake of the genus Alstroemeria, commonly called the Peruvian lily.
  • Daniel Solander (1733 - 1782) was a Linnaean apostle who traveled widely and worked closely with the famous Englishman Joseph Banks. The genus Solandra in the nightshade family (Solanaceae) is named after Solander.
  • Anders Sparman (1748 - 1820) was a widely travelled Linnaean apostle honored by the genus Sparrmannia in the lime family (Tiliaceae).
  • Carl Peter Thunberg (1743 - 1828) was a Linnaean apostle often referred to as the “Japanese Linnaeus” due to his botanizing in Japan. He is commemorated with the genus of tropical plants Thunbergia in the acanthus (Acanthaceae) family that contains the well-known T. alata or Black-eyed Susan vine.
  • Captain Carl Gustaf Ekeberg (1716 - 1784) was a Swedish explorer who brought back specimens for Linnaeus from his numerous voyages. He is honored with the genus Ekebergia in the mahogany family (Meliaceae). Linnaeus hoped that the Ekebergia that the captain brought back to Sweden would seed a tea industry in in Sweden. It was not to be the case.
  • Landgravine Caroline Louise of Hesse-Darmstadt (1723 - 1783) an admirer of Linnaeus honored with the tropical tree Carolinea (a synonym of Pachira) in the mallow family (Malvaceae).

 

Philosophica Botanica – Tips on Travelling

As I was time researching different aspects of Linnaeus’ life, I started looking at Philosophia Botanica, first published in 1751 a few years before Species Plantarum. The book is composed mainly of aphorisms in which the “foundations of botany are explained, with definitions of the parts, examples of the technical terms and observations of rarities”. You can download the original book in Latin at a number of sites (Internet Archive for example or here in the Biodiversity Heritage Library). Or, you can buy it translated into English by Stephen Freer (which is the source of all the translations here). One thing that caught my attention in Philosophia are these terse instructions on how to travel (page 297 of the original):

PEREGRINATIO
Principium erit mirari omnia, etiam tristissima.
Medium est calamo committere visa, et utilia.
Finis erit naturam adcuratiùs delineare, quàm alius.

Freer translates the Latin as:

Travelling
The starting-point must be to marvel at all things, even the most commonplace.
The means is to commit to writing things that have been observed, and are useful.
The end must be to depict nature more accurately than anyone else.

Left: Cover of an English translation of Linnaeus’ Philosophia Botanica; Right: A page from Philosophia discussing travel tips.
Cover of an English Translation of Linnaeus’s Philosophia BotanicaA Page from Philosophia Discussing Travel Tips

A page from Philosophia Botanica showing flower parts.
A page from Philosophia Botanica showing flower parts.

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