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There was also a deeper purpose, for Linnaeus, to this enterprise. Find the "natural method" of arranging plants into groups, and you would have discovered God's own secret logic of biological creation, just as Isaac Newton had discovered God's physical mathematics. Linnaeus knew that he hadn't achieved that, not even with his 24-class sexual system, which was convenient but artificial. He couldn't see, couldn't imagine, that the most natural classification of species reflects their degree of relatedness based on evolutionary descent. But his passion for order—for seeking a natural order—did move taxonomy toward the insights later delivered by Charles Darwin.

As for nomenclature, it contributes to the same purpose. "If you do not know the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost too," he wrote in Philosophia Botanica. Naming species, like arranging them, became increasingly problematic as more and more were discovered; the old-fashioned method, linking long chains of adjectives and references into fully descriptive labels, grew unwieldy. In Species Plantarum, he established the Latin binomial system for naming plants, and then in the tenth edition of Systema Naturae, published in 1758-59 as two fat volumes, he extended it to all species, both plant and animal. A pondweed clumsily known as Potamogeton caule compresso, folio Graminis canini, et cetera, became Potamogeton compressum. We became Homo sapiens.

His life back in Uppsala entailed more than authorship. He was a wonderful teacher, with a vivid speaking style, clear and witty, and a terrific memory for facts. His lectures often packed the hall, his private tutoring earned him extra money, and he made botany both empirical and fun by leading big festive field trips into the countryside on summer Saturdays, complete with picnic lunches, banners and kettledrums, and a bugle sounding whenever someone found a rare plant. He had the instincts of an impresario. But he was also quietly effective in mentoring the most talented and serious of his students, of whom more than a dozen went off on adventuresome natural history explorations around the world, faithfully sending data and specimens back to the old man. With his typically sublime absence of modesty, he called those travelers the "apostles." In 1761, the government ennobled him, whereupon he upgraded his linden-tree name to von Linné. By then he was the most famous naturalist in Europe.

His wife sternly guarded their privacy, and his son became only a middling botanist, but his teaching role delivered rich satisfactions, and he had an abundance of brilliant intellectual offspring. Despite the limitations of his language skills (he may have known some Dutch and German but did all his writing in Swedish and Latin) and of his geographical experience (he never left Sweden again), he became a global encyclopedist of flora and fauna; in lieu of personal travel, he relied on written correspondence with naturalists all over the world and on information received from the apostles, such as Daniel Solander (who sailed on Cook's first voyage), Pehr Kalm (in North America), and Anders Sparrman (China, South Africa, then Cook's second voyage). Linnaeus himself had no appetite for the rigors and climate of the tropics, though he was voraciously curious about tropical plant diversity. Let the young men gather the information; he would systematize it.

In Uppsala, I discussed this manipulative, homebody aspect with Professor Carl-Olof Jacobson, a retired zoologist who serves as chairman of the Swedish Linnaeus Society. No, Linnaeus didn't want to travel abroad, Professor Jacobson told me. "What he wanted to be was a spider in the net."

The center of that net, that vast web of scientific silk, was in and around Uppsala—including the university, its splendid botanical garden, and a small farm known as Hammarby, about five miles (eight kilometers) outside the city. Linnaeus bought Hammarby and built a large, simple house there to be his summer retreat. It might have served also as his retirement home, though he never retired. Each autumn, having savored his time in this getaway, he moved back into town, where the living was less austere. He grew feeble and ill, then suffered a seizure after one last escape to the countryside, strictly against doctor's orders, and died on January 10, 1778. They buried him beneath the stone floor of Uppsala's cathedral, the Westminster Abbey of Sweden.

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