Sex and the kingdoms of nature

THE GREAT Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus, the third centenary of whose birth is being celebrated in 2007, was the first person to grow bananas in Europe.

The great man had some odd ideas concerning bananas. He believed, for example, that the forbidden fruit, which led to the fall of Adam and Eve was not an apple but a banana, presumably because of the fruit’s resemblance to a phallus.

Linnaeus, it is sometimes said, had an unhealthy preoccupation with sex. The Latin names he assigned to flowers were often those of the human genital organs and one critic maintained that Linnaeus’ classification of plants was little more than ‘loathsome harlotry’. His lyrical celebrations of the conjugal unions of plants would be unremarkable nowadays but, in the 18th century, they raised some eyebrows:

“The flowers’ leaves … serve as bridal beds which the Creator has so gloriously arranged, adorned with such noble bed curtains and perfumed with so many soft scents, that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials with so much the greater solemnity. When the bed has thus been made ready, then is the time for the bridegroom to embrace his beloved bride and surrender himself to her.”

But Linnaeus was always a faithful husband and no philanderer, nor were his carnal interests morbid or trivial. Indeed, it could be argued that he was the first scientist or philosopher to grasp the central importance of sexuality for an understanding of living things. In this he anticipated Darwin, who transformed our relationship with animals, and Freud, who emphasised the centrality of sex in human motivation.

In Linnaeus’ day, the study of nature was a mess. There were two major problems. The first concerned classification. Which organisms belonged together and on what basis should they be grouped? There were many contending systems. Everybody, including Linnaeus, believed animals and plants had been created by God for our use and benefit.

They were often, therefore, grouped under headings such as ‘very useful’, ‘moderately useful’, ‘poisonous’, etc. Size was sometimes regarded as the essential attribute, or aquatic animals might be placed together. Putting crabs, fish and seals in the same group was quite a good arrangement from an ecological point of view. For other naturalists, however, beauty was the crucial determinant and they divided everything into the good, the bad and the ugly, a totally useless approach.

Linnaeus’ methods developed gradually; the Systema Naturae grew from a slim volume into a huge compendium. For him, there were three kingdoms; those of plants, animals and minerals. Kingdoms were subdivided into classes. Then comes a stroke of real genius. That plants reproduced sexually had only recently been rediscovered, so, instead of grouping them according to the shapes and colours of their flowers or leaves, Linnaeus focused on their reproductive organs. He examined the arrangement of their stamens (the male parts) and pistils (the female parts). It was important, he thought, to discover the “number of husbands in the marriage”.

A normal matrimonial union consisted of one stamen and one pistil but in some plants there were “husbands and wives growing together”. In the Pine family, “husbands and wives lived together in the same house”. In the Compositae, the daisy family, husbands were joined together at the top. Ferns and mosses, which have no visible reproductive organs, were “plants with a hidden marriage”. There were 24 classes in his system and the names which he gave many of them survive to this day.

The animal kingdom had six classes: mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, insects and “vermes”, a category which included worms, snails and shellfish. Linnaeus was an extraordinarily perceptive naturalist. He saw, for example, that whales were mammals and that they were related to hoofed animals. He could make mistakes, though. Led astray by the tall stories of sailors, he believed there wild men elsewhere in the world; Homo caudatus had a tail and Homo ferus walked on all fours.

The second great problem, which he addresses, concerned names. When a scientist encountered an unknown plant or animal, he would invent a name for it. Given the complexity of nature, names had to be highly descriptive and some were almost a paragraph long. Even still, there no reliable way of knowing if a creature had been named by someone else. This led to confusion and the unnecessary duplication of effort.

Linnaeus, with his sense of order and clarity of thought, proposed a standardised binomial system which was logical and elegant. He gave each specimen a single-word species name, rather like the first name of a person. Then he placed the name of the genus, to which the specimen belonged, in front of it. The system, which he applied even to rocks and diseases is the one we use today.

Towards the end of his life, Linnaeus began to accept that species are subject to modification and change. He saw that creatures struggled for survival. His was an ecological view of nature, which was way ahead of its time. The Frenchman Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles, would soon put forward ‘transformist’ theories, which challenged the notion that species were immutable.

If he had lived longer, would Linnaeus have become an evolutionist? Probably not. Although he knew hybrid offspring were possible and that species change, he believed there were limits to such variation and he remained convinced that each creature was created directly by God.

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