January 26, 2015
Last fall, I found myself very moved by visiting the residence and garden of Carl Linnaeus, in Uppsala, Sweden. As you may (or may not!) remember from your high school biology classes, Linnaeus developed the system of binomial nomenclature, i.e. the system by which we label an avocado, for example, Persea americana.
Linnaeus did much of his work in Scandinavia, which is not exactly the most biodiverse or fertile part of the world; compare Africa, Asia, or even mainland Europe. And yet even viewing the world through this tiny lens, through his constant explorations and the expeditions of his students, he was able to understand some of the order behind a massive, completely organic, non-guided system (i.e. all life on the planet).
While a lot has changed in our understanding since Linnaeus did his work, the fundamental ideas that he had and, through hard work, popularized, remain the basis of biological classification today.
And the theoretical insight he had was not, actually, the result of a flash of inspiration or a set of equations. His major accomplishment was developing the binomial nomenclature system, but he couldn’t have done this without actually cataloging, and considering the relationships between, the many thousands of plant and animal species that were available to him. In doing so, he proved and developed his system.
Linnaeus’ work is an incredibly unique combination of the organic (life on Earth, in all its diversity) with the logical (a system for classifying them). It’s also a combination of the intellectual (theories about how life can be divided into groups), together with the practical (going out and actually classifying huge numbers of species into those groups, in order to prove the theory).
Even the botanical garden at Linnaeus’ house reflected this. It’s constructed in such a way that it displays specimens of high education value, that illustrate the way the system works. At the same time, it is indeed a garden, with all the practical maintenance a garden requires, all the constant biological activity, and all the infinite complexity and beauty of its specimens. And in addition to being a great scientist, Linnaeus was also a great teacher, walking his students through the garden, for example, during his lectures.
It’s this balance that I find so admirable in Linnaeus; excellence that bridges a few different areas, and especially achievement in both purely theoretical, and then highly practical, areas. Gustav Mahler is someone else I admire for these reasons (great composer, and also great conductor), but that’s for another post.