Carl von Linné names the world

Carl Linnaeus, 1707-1778, or “Carl von Linné” as Swedes call him, was the botanist who came up with the Latin names for all plants and animals. In fact, they were not only named but above all organized into a system — a Systema naturæ, to give the title of his most famous work, published in 1735 — in which every living thing found its proper place. All species could be related to each other, even those that had not yet been discovered. In order put names into the grids of his system, Linnaeus traveled all around Sweden looking for plants, but he also dispatched his students — often referred to as his “disciples” — to find new plants in the most remote corners of the globe.

Linnaeus believed botany should serve the interests of the nation. In particular he found it an outrage that Swedes spent their hard-earned money on tea from China. We are sending silver to the Chinese and all we get in return are dry leaves! When one of the disciples returned from China with a tea bush Linné was very excited by the prospect of starting a tea plantation in Sweden. Imagine how rich Sweden would be if we never had to trade with others! Unfortunately the bush died when exposed to the harsh Swedish winter.

Carl von Linné may have been a great botanist but he, together with next to all of his contemporaries, did not understand political economy. The wealth of a nation, as Adam Smith was to explain, consists of what it can produce and Sweden cannot produce tea. It is much better to let the Chinese focus on tea and for Swedes to focus on what they are comparatively better at producing ― cars, for example, or flat-pack furniture. By focusing on their respective advantages and by trading, the wealth of both China and Sweden will be maximized. Smith, in the Wealth of Nations, 1776, provided the intellectual rationale for a global market in which there are no borders and no custom duties.

But Linné’s system of nature had a universal scope. By naming all species and putting them into the same system, the Europeans had a complete map of every living thing. Once Linné had named the world, the Europeans could start to control it. [Read more:Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494“]


External links:

Scientific American, “What’s In A Latin Name: The Legacy of Linnaeus”