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 by him but organized into a system – a Systema naturæ, to give the title of his most famous work, 1735 – in which every living thing found its proper place. In this system all species could be related to each other, even those that had not yet been discovered. Linné’s system of nature had a universal scope. In order put names into the many empty grids, Linnaeus traveled 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! Thus when one of his disciples one day returned from China with a tea bush, Linné was very excited and devised a plan to start a tea plantation in his native Uppsala. Imagine how rich the country would be if we never have to trade with foreigners! Unfortunately, however, 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 much about political economy. The wealth of a nation, as Adam Smith later 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 with each other, 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.

External links:

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

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