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The Garden of Sweden
Linnaeus: Nature and Nation By Lisbet Koerner Harvard University Press 298 pp $39.95
Taxonomy is practical politics. Absent a narcissist's faith in your own opinion or a very un-postmodern belief in the objectivity of classification, you face a classic political problem whenever you put things in groups: Whose vision of groupness should prevail? No surprise, then, that the work of Carl Linnaeus, the eighteenth- century taxonomist, offers grounds for partisan wrangling.
In Linnaeus: Nature and Nation, Lisbet Koerner presents the Swedish botanist's life and work as "a case study of the relation between natural knowledge and political economy in the early Enlightenment." Born in 1707, Linnaeus is best known for his sex-based system of plant classification and for the Latin binomials still used to name species today. Both brought order to botanical chaos, allowing scientists from different regions and cultures to be more certain whereof they spoke. By naming plants according to their classification, and by classifying them according to the structural characteristics of their reproductive systems (easily observed and relatively unchanging over the life of the plant), Linnaeus aimed to create a universal system that could be understood, used, even extended by almost anyone.
If your knowledge of Linnaeus ends here, the fuller picture his biography provides is surprising. Love of country, and a deep empathy for its starving peasants, forged his life's purpose. His goal was to feed Sweden's peasantry by creating the wealth of a sprawling empire within his Nordic homeland. To that end, he attempted to grow bananas, coffee, and other tropical imports in the frigid environs of Uppsala, where he lived and taught. Koerner shows the relationship between Linnaeus's political beliefs and his botanizing, between his concepts of nation and nature, and the story she tells is compelling.
Animated by nationalist sentiment, Linnaeus was also a cameralist--a follower of an economic school that originated in seventeenth-century Germany among princely treasurers, men trusted alone with bullion in camera. Like mercantilists, cameralists taught that a country's reserves of hard specie were a measure of its economic health. Unlike mercantilists, they held that trade was always and everywhere an invitation to decline. With economic growth not the blatant fact it is today, gross world product seemed to them fixed. Innocent of marginal utility analysis, they saw all movement of goods across national borders as zero-sum. From this it followed that the rationally governed, self-sufficient nation was best.
Problem: Such autarkies are not created equal. Without trade, life is commodious only for subjects of those nations that already contain resources for diverse and prolific production within their borders. Of course, a country lacking in this regard might alter its fate through territorial expansion or the integration of colonies into the homeland. But if you're an eighteenth-century Swede and a realist, you know your country isn't about to conquer its neighbors or establish an empire. What to do?
Although Linnaeus saw clearly the grounds for comparative advantage--"Nature has arranged itself in such a way that each country produces something especially useful," he wrote in 1746--he couldn't see the mutual benefits of free trade. To him, the differences in endowment among nations were evidence of a providential plan. It was, however, a plan that included a significant role for humans: "The task of economics," that passage continues, "is to collect from other places and cultivate [at home] such things that don't want to grow [here]."
And so Linnaeus undertook his quixotic program of import replacement through "acclimatization": the adaptation of exotic plants to Sweden's difficult climate. He begged seeds and samples from students he sent to botanize abroad: tea from China, bananas and coffee from Central America, mulberries to encourage a domestic silk industry. "Should Coconuts chance to come into my hands," he wrote to one correspondent, "it would be as if fried Birds of Paradise flew into my throat when I opened my mouth." His demonstration plot at Uppsala held cacao, rice, sugarcane, ginger, olive trees, and sago palms. Thanks to continual replanting, the garden itself appeared to thrive even as individual specimens succumbed to the cold. Protecting his theory with ad hoc explanation, Linnaeus attributed failures to chance or to the weaknesses of individual plants.
If Linnaeus's project seems hopelessly deluded, it needs to be set against the knowledge available at the time. He generalized too ambitiously from successful transplants: Rhubarb, tobacco, red currants, larches, honeysuckle, the horse chestnut, the Swiss maple, and the cherry could be made to grow north of their native range, so why not mulberries, coffee, tea? In 1761 he admitted his failure to transplant coffee--"it is obvious that [coffee] can never successfully be planted and multiplied by us, since its homeland lies on the equator"--and went on to engage in demand-side management by denouncing the bean as a moral and medical hazard. In its place he recommended a decoction of burned "peas, beechnuts, almonds, beans, maize, wheat, or toasted bread." To his credit, Linnaeus recognized his mistakes and learned: Gradually he came to articulate something like the idea of ecosystems to explain his failures.
Thinkers who, like Linnaeus, flourished before current disciplinary lines were drawn present a special challenge to scholarly biography. Koerner is equal to the task, smoothly integrating historical material from biology, botany, anthropology, economics, theology, medicine, politics, and culture. The book is, however, marred by Koerner's evident dislike of her subject. She misses few occasions to interpret Linnaeus in the most uncharitable light.
In recounting Linnaeus's experiments with acclimatization, for instance, she doesn't mention his anticipation of that other taxonomist, Lamarck, whose theory of evolution by transmission of acquired characteristics wasn't conclusively rejected until the mid-nineteenth century. She tells with relish of Linnaeus having to recant his ambitious claim to a "natural" (nonarbitrary) taxonomy--but fails to mention how modern DNA analysis allows us to classify organisms according to their lines of descent.
Sometimes, moreover, Koerner is just plain mean. When Linnaeus was appointed chief physician to the Swedish navy, "his vitae boast[ed] that he could cure scurvy, tumors, smallpox, and syphilis." Parenthetically she adds: "he could not heal his own rotting teeth, gout, migraine, and melancholy. Nor could he reverse the many small strokes that eventually killed him."
Empathy is to historical understanding what air is to fire, an aliment without which it smolders and fails to enlighten. Koerner's animosity undercuts the readerly trust on which even the most thoroughly footnoted work of scholarship ultimately depends.
Why the dislike? A case could be made that Linnaeus's energetic carriage of biota across the seams of Pangaea makes him the patron devil of ecological invasion, a problem that ranks with loss of habitat as a major destroyer of natural diversity. But Koerner doesn't seem motivated by a love of nature. She disapproves of the Great Taxonomist, the man who tried to subsume all life into a nonarbitrary system of classification: Haven't too many people been pushed to the margins by culturally specific labels masquerading as objective truth? Then too, "Linnaeus never distinguished the moral from the natural," she objects.
Living by his moral lights, Linnaeus confounded his friends by never refusing alms to beggars who frequented the campus at Uppsala during Sweden's repeated famines. If sometimes he can be shown to have had an eye on the main chance, the degree of calculation, self-promotion, and ambition he displayed is not unusual in a family man with mouths to feed--or in a thinker who saw clearly, at a young age, the shape of his potential contribution to human knowledge.
Throughout his life, Linnaeus was pious but far from conventional: He taught his dog to leave church during sermons so that he could follow along in sham concern. His home was unusual by any measure. As Koerner writes:
In Linnaeus's house parrots and monkeys played among stuffed animals, potted plants, insect specimens, mineral samples, scientific instruments, and herbaria sheets. The walls of his rooms disappeared behind tangled branches--some thirty species of songbirds nested in them. Using fish-glue, Linnaeus pasted botanic prints as wallpaper. He also hung on the walls framed portrait engravings of botanists, sheets of paper with handwritten botanic annotations, and pressed plants.He covered the floors with old manuscript pages to catch droppings and believed that one female monkey, whom he called by name, could speak a few simple words. His relationship with her was the foundation of his belief that humans were properly classified as primates, perhaps even somehow co-related. Toward the end of his life, in fact, he suspected the mutability of species.
If this Linnaeus charms, it's all the more remarkable that this, too, is a Linnaeus Koerner shows us. Unfortunately, she can't forgive him for not being postmodern. Again and again we see her shake her head: The pious old taxonomist just didn't get it.
And yet Linnaeus remains a worthy ancestor whose ideas still illuminate the relationship between the world of nature and the world of profit and loss. "Nature's economy shall be the base for our own, for it is immutable, but ours is secondary," he declared in 1763. We've since learned (sometimes to our sorrow) that nature changes, but the rest of the idea is admirably cogent.
These days, economy too often trumps ecology, giving us species driven to extinction, ecosystems simplified to radical instability, and markets that can't include the bids of future humans (let alone the interests of nonhumans) when settling the fate of the planet. If we were to reverse the relation--subordinate economics to ecology--the supposedly "dismal" science might be forced to abandon its radically optimismic assumptions that no change is ever permanent and economic activity cannot have any effect on its milieu. Ending those particular denials seems a good idea if we're to constrain production within appropriate biological limits before all the rain forests are gone. "An economist without knowledge of nature," Linnaeus wrote, "is like a physicist without knowledge of mathematics." Would that this analogy were better credited today.
Eric Zencey is the author of the novel Panama (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and, most recently, Virgin Forest: Meditations on History, Ecology, and Culture (Georgia).