Friday, May 04, 2007

Organization Man


There is a nice article in Smithsonian Magazine this month about Linnaeus, entitled Organization Man. A few of my favorite paragraphs:

The approach earned Linnaeus the ire of his more prudish colleagues. They objected to his lyrical descriptions of the love lives of plants. Bad enough that a flower's petals should be compared to the "bridal bed...perfumed with so many sweet scents in order that the bridegroom and bride may therein celebrate their nuptials with the greater solemnity," but when Linnaeus defined polyandrous flowers as having "twenty males or more in the same bed as the female," this was too much. "Who would have thought that bluebells and lilies and onions could be up to such immorality?" jibed one critic, who dismissed the entire system as "loathsome harlotry" unworthy of the Creator.
Many of his ideas now seem ludicrous. He believed epilepsy could be caused by washing one's hair, and leprosy caught by eating herring worms. He persisted in the archaic belief that swallows wintered at the bottom of lakes. Others were quaint: he devised a clock based on the opening and closing times of various flowers.

But many of his other views were surprisingly modern. He foreshadowed Darwin in his belief in a universal struggle for survival. He was the first to classify human beings in the same genus as other primates, and he grouped whales with mammals (previously they had been considered fish). He advocated biological control as a means of dealing with insect pests (he was particularly keen to find the invertebrate "lion" that would control bedbugs), and he understood the importance of biodiversity: "I do not know how the world could persist gracefully if but a single animal species were to vanish from it," he wrote in his journal. He even conjectured that micro-organisms "smaller than the motes dancing in a beam of light" might be responsible for transmitting contagious diseases—long before medicine embraced the idea of pathogens. Linnaeus dabbled in aquaculture, successfully growing pearls in freshwater mussels. And he gave an important tweak to the Celsius scale of temperature measurement. Anders Celsius, a Linnaeus contemporary, had designated the boiling point of water to be 0 degrees and the freezing point to be 100. It was Linnaeus' idea to flip the scale
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