Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Those of us who love biology have a good reason to celebrate today. Every time we think about, talk about, or wonder about an organism, we do it upon the handy framework designed by Carl Linneaus, who was born exactly three centuries ago in Älmhult, in Southern Sweden. From the time he was an adolescent at the University of Lund, he often went by the Latinized name Carolus Linnaeus, and after King Adolf Frederik ennobled him in 1761, he began answering to Carl von Linné as well, or simply Carl Linné. This all becomes very confusing, and today most of us remember him as plain old “Linnaeus.”
Fascinated by plants since he was a small boy, he began designing systems for classifying them early on, and first published his Systema Naturae while studying in the Netherlands at age 28. The binomial system of nomenclature Linnaeus used was actually borrowed from the Historia Plantarum Universalis, published in 1651 by the Bauhin brothers, Johan and Gaspard, also Swedes, but I feel that Linnaeus more than repayed them by naming in their honor the plant genus Bauhinia, which includes the extremely cool Neotropical liana, Bauhinia guinensis, shown draped around a tree in the painting below.

Today Linnaeus' seven levels of taxonomic hierarchy, and mnemonic acrostics like "King Philip Came Over For Girl Scouts," or versions less family friendly, are requisite knowledge for dealing with all things biological, and it's hard to imagine how anyone made any sense at all of the Natural World before Linnaeus' system. Over the past couple of decades, a few pretty decent attempts have been made at trying to overthrow that system, but we all still use it, and it works surprisingly well. In fact, as we argue over what constitutes a genus or species, it's easy to forget that these aren't real things, but just abstract tools.
So here's a toast to you, my dead Swedish friend! From one Carl with a confusing name to another: Skål!
Update: Mitch, my old pal and correspondent from Linnaeus' hometown of Uppsala reports that the birthday festivities were appropriately frenzied. The Japanese emperor, an amateur botanist, is in town for the party, and a huge beach volleyball tournament was held (few people know that Linnaeus was a wicked beach volleyball center).
upper: Photo of Paul Granlund's Linnaeus sculpture at Gustavus Adolphus College swiped from the internet
lower: GREAT TINAMOU (1994) acrylic 20" x 15"


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