Published: June 2007

The Name Giver

Star Magnolia

A Passion for Order

Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus was an early information architect. He believed that every kind of plant and animal on Earth should be named and classified.

By David Quammen
Photograph by Helene Schmitz

Springtime comes late in Sweden. So it was still springtime on May 23, 1707, when a son was born to the wife of the curate of a small Swedish village called Stenbrohult. The season was raw, the ground was wet, the trees were in leaf but not yet flowering as the baby arrived, raw and wet himself. The child's father, Nils Linnaeus, was an amateur botanist and an avid gardener as well as a Lutheran minister, who had concocted his own surname (a bureaucratic necessity for university enrollment, replacing his traditional patronymic, son of Ingemar) from the Swedish word lind, meaning linden tree. Nils Linnaeus loved plants. The child's mother, a rector's daughter named Christina, was only 18. They christened the boy Carl, and as the story comes down, filtered through mythic retrospection upon a man who became the world's preeminent botanist, they decorated his cradle with flowers.

When he was cranky as a toddler, they put a flower in his hand, which calmed him. Or anyway, again, that's what later testimony claims. Flowers were his point of entrance to appreciating beauty and diversity in nature. He seems even to have sensed, at an early age, that they were more than just beautiful and diverse—that they also encoded some sort of meaning.

He grew quickly into a boy fascinated not just by flowers, and by the plants that produce them, but also by the names of those plants. He badgered his father to identify the local wildflowers that he collected. "But he was still only a child," according to one account, "and often forgot them." His father, reaching a point of impatience, scolded little Carl, "saying 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, so that he might not be deprived of his greatest pleasure." This is the sort of detail, like Rosebud the sled, that seems too perfectly portentous for real history, as opposed to screen drama or hagiography. Still, it might just be true. Names and their storage in memory, along with the packets of information they reference, are abiding themes of his scientific maturity. But to understand the huge renown he enjoyed during his lifetime, and his lasting significance, you need to recognize that Carl Linnaeus wasn't simply a great botanist and a prolific deviser and memorizer of names.

He was something more modern: an information architect.

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