Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Nod to Carl Linnaeus

Posted by: Alison O'Connor, Larimer County Extension

I have a confession.  I’m in love with a dead man.  Like over 200 years dead.  He’s totally toast.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia:
But I still think he’s the bomb shizzle.  And yet most people outside of science don’t know who he is or what he did in his short 71 years.  Of course I’m talking about Carl Linnaeus.  The Father of Plant Taxonomy.  The man who brought order to our chaotic world of living things.  I’d like to think he was one of the first obsessive-compulsive individuals…maybe that’s why I love him so much.

Don’t know much about The Man?  Let me tell you a few things…

Linnaeus (1707-1778) was a Swedish botanist who developed a cataloging system (which is still in use today) to classify living organisms.  His first published work, Systema Naturae, in 1735 (he was only 25 years old!), was revolutionary.  He spent most of his life perfecting the system.  The first edition was only 14 pages long and grouped animals into the categories of Quadrupedia (four-footers), Aves (birds), Amphibia (including reptiles), Pisces (fish), Insecta and Vermes (worms and other slimy stuff).  The last edition released by Linnaeus was the 12th version, 2,300 pages long and cataloged roughly 7,700 plants and 4,400 animals.

Not bad, eh?

To me, the coolest thing Linnaeus did was save the world from confusion.  He gave every living organism a two-part name (AKA “binomial nomenclature”) to specifically identify exactly what it is.  He introduced this concept in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae.  Did you know that Ginkgo biloba is the same plant no matter what country you’re in?  A man who only speaks Russian will know Ginkgo biloba; as will an Italian woman.  That’s pretty awesome.  It provides neutrality among countries and languages.

So what are the two parts?  The first is the genus (Ginkgo).  The second is the specific epithet (biloba); yes, sometimes this is called the “species”, but it’s really the specific epithet.  Together, both words (Ginkgo biloba) create the species.

Whoa.  Amazing.  Every single living thing has a two-part scientific name: Zebra (Equus quagga), Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua), E. coli (Escherichia coli)... You get the idea.  Yes, the scientific name is in Latin, but don’t let that stop you from spouting off random names in public.  Quercus robur!  Liquidambar styraciflua!  Poa annua!

My co-workers know about my affinity for Linnaeus and support my obsession by bringing me baked goods bearing his likeness. This is both fun and tasty.  

Linnaeus' birthday is a great reason to eat cake!
Cupcakes are equally enjoyable...thanks to Carrie in Weld County!
So the next time you’re thinking about how much you love your dog (Canus lupus familiaris), give him an extra pat for our buddy, Carl.  As for me, I can sleep knowing that my wig-bearing man made our horticultural world a little bit tidier. (Sigh of contentment.)  What a guy.


  1. Ali, my beloved dead guy is Loren Eiseley. He was the first (as far as I know) author of natural history books for popular audiences, the genre so ably carried on by Lewis Thomas, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins and many others. The Immense Journey, his paean to the majesty and mystery of evolution, changed the trajectory of my life and probably accounts for me winding up as a part of this group. The one I would recommend though (for science geeks!) is Darwin's Century: Evolution and the men who discovered it. Linnaeus is in there!

    1. Ah, our adoration for dead men. I'll have to look into Loren and his efforts...add it to my growing list of books to read! Now to find the time...