email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Name Giver
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Linnaeus emerged from this tradition and went beyond it. His Systema Naturae, as published in 1735, was a unique and peculiar thing: a folio volume of barely more than a dozen pages, in which he outlined a classification system for all members of what he considered the three kingdoms of nature—plants, animals, and minerals. Notwithstanding the inclusion of minerals, what really mattered were his views on the kingdoms of life.

His treatment of animals, presented on one double-page spread, was organized into six major columns, each topped with a name for one of his classes: Quadrupedia, Aves, Amphibia, Pisces, Insecta, Vermes. Quadrupedia was divided into several four-limbed orders, including Anthropomorpha (mainly primates), Ferae (such as canids, felids, bears), and others. His Amphibia encompassed reptiles as well as amphibians, and his Vermes was a catchall group, containing not just worms and leeches and flukes but also slugs, sea cucumbers, starfish, barnacles, and other sea animals. He divided each order further, into genera (some with recognizable names such as Leo, Ursus, Hippopotamus, and Homo), and each genus into species. Apart from the six classes, Linnaeus also gave half a column to what he called Paradoxa, a wild-card group of chimerical or simply befuddling creatures such as the unicorn, the phoenix, the dragon, the satyr, and a certain giant tadpole (now known as Pseudis paradoxa) that, weirdly, shrinks during metamorphosis into a much smaller frog. Across the top of the chart ran large letters: CAROLI LINNAEI REGNUM ANIMALE. It was a provisional effort, grand in scope, integrated, but not especially original, to make sense of faunal diversity based on what was known and believed at the time. Then again, animals weren't his specialty.

Plants were. His classification of the vegetable kingdom was more innovative, more comprehensive, and more orderly. It became known as the "sexual system" because he recognized that flowers are sexual structures, and he used their male and female organs—their stamens and pistils—to characterize his groups. He defined 23 classes, into which he placed all the flowering plants (with a 24th class for cryptogams, those that don't flower), based on the number, size, and arrangement of their stamens. Then he broke each class into orders, based on their pistils. To the classes, he gave names such as Monandria, Diandria, Triandria (meaning: one husband, two husbands, three husbands) and, within each, ordinal names such as Monogynia, Digynia, Trigynia, thereby evoking all sorts of scandalous ménages (a plant of the Monogynia order within the Tetrandria class: one wife with four husbands) that caused lewd smirks and disapproving scowls among some of his contemporaries. Linnaeus himself seems to have enjoyed the sexy subtext. And it didn't prevent his botanical schema from becoming the accepted system of plant classification throughout Europe.

The artist Georg Ehret helped popularize Linnaeus's ideas by producing a handsome tabella, a poster, illustrating the diagnostic features for Linnaeus's 24 classes. The tabella sold well and earned Ehret some guldens. Linnaeus himself, always stingy about sharing credit, included Ehret's drawing without acknowledgement in one of his later books. But he wouldn't forget his old pal, and evidence left after his death—we'll come to it—suggests that he valued Ehret's botanical vision as he valued few aside from his own.

After returning to Sweden, becoming a husband and father and a professor at Uppsala University, Linnaeus continued to churn out books. He published revised and expanded editions of Systema Naturae, as well as strictly botanical volumes such as Flora Suecica (Swedish Flora) in 1745, Philosophia Botanica (1751), and Species Plantarum (1753). Philosophia Botanica is a compendium of terse, numbered postulates in which he lays out his botanical philosophy. For instance: "The foundation of botany is two-fold, arrangement and nomenclature." Arrangement of plants into rational categories and subcategories is crucial for three reasons: Because there are so many kinds (and more every year, during the great age of discovery in which Linnaeus lived), because much is known about many of those kinds, and because classification makes that knowledge accessible. Alphabetical listing may have worked well enough with 500 plant genera, but as the count rose into many thousands of species, it didn't serve.

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