Linnaeus, poetic installation at the Macleay Museum


Poetic installation at the Macleay Museum

in association with Rational Order: Carl Von Linnaeus 1707-1778, Macleay Museum, 2007


The Apostles

Rhubarb & Pearls

Consequently: he who wants to have right without wrong, / Order without disorder, Does not understand the principles / Of heaven and earth. / He does not know how / Things hang together. Chuang Tzu

“The impossibility of penetrating the divine pattern of the universe cannot stop us from planning human patterns.” J.L. Borges

The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge divided animals into:
a) those belonging to the Emperor
b) those that are embalmed
c) those that are tame
d) pigs
e) sirens
f) imaginary animals
g) wild dogs
h) those included in this classification
i) those that are crazy-acting
j) those that are uncountable
k) those painted with the finest brush made of camel hair
l) miscellaneous
m) those which have just broken a vase, and
n) those which, from a distance, look like flies.

q) What is a camel’s hair brush made of?
a) Squirrel fur

Linnaeus first published his sexual system of plant classification in Systema naturae (1735). He knew his system was arithmetic and arbitrary, but also that it, “made the ordering of floral collections less daunting both to the learned and amateurs.”

He was not an empiricist (then fashionable) and had no interest in science or technology, grounding his claims in revelation. He believed he was ordained to reveal divine law, and “read nature as any other book”.

A major debate is between the phenetic model based on a mathematical analysis of appearances (making no claims about evolutionary relationships) and the cladistic model, which groups organisms according to their common ancestors.

Alternative taxonomic systems provide different classifications of species. Species are statistical abstractions rather than Aristotle’s (or Linnaeus’) idea of species as natural kinds or essences.

Michel Foucault in Les Mots et les choses (The Order of Things) argues that classification is a creative and contingent activity.

Nullae species novae (no new species in a perfect world). Linnaeus, Systema Naturae (1735),

Linnaeus assumed an Edenic nature operated in the present – if only you could help it along. He conceptualised nature as a prelapsarian paradise and a single self-regulating mechanism, with each nation containing all the natural products necessary for a complete and complex economy. Lisbet Koerner

What a strange idea. Nations come and go, and in any case, he wanted to import wealth in the form of rhubarb and Pearls.

Linnaeus read Latin poetry daily, especially Ovid and Virgil. He condemned rhetorical ornate writing, but his plain style was a form of rhetoric to match his simple, practical closed system. Like speech, writing is susceptible to the wild.

Wilkins thought a universal language would be ideal because it sidesteps Babel, is accurate to the world, and immune to verbal trickery. Latin was no longer a universal language of scholars. David Bohm a quantum physicist, also undertook a language experiment. His was based on Native American verb-based languages in recognition of the transcendental, transformational nature of the cosmos.

Like Aristotle, he grouped mammals by toes and teeth and birds by beak and feet, but in winter the willow ptarmigan has no visible feet. In summer it has different plumage.

Linnaeus thought rhubarb a “divine medication” curing lung disorders, scabies and fevers. “It tolerates our climate and ought to be planted with utmost care as a treasure and domestic product.” He also recommended marihuana for “chasing away melancholy . . . making you happy and funny.”

Linnaeus wrote of Linnaeus, “No one has become more of a household name throughout the world.” He was almost forgotten until the mid-19th C when his house became a museum and you could buy his brand of cream cakes.

“He was a rude provincial: somewhat aged, not large man with dusty shoes and stockings, markedly unshaven and dressed in an old green coat from which dangles a medal.” The Romantic image of this small dark man is blue-eyed Aryan blond.

The Nazi’s loved order, but still burnt books by Linnaeus at Nuremburg in 33, according to Josef Beuys.


Linnaeus in Lapland dress by Lizars
Linnaeus in Lapland dress by Lizars

His home was a Wunderkammer: “The walls of his rooms disappeared behind tangled branches – some thirty species of songbirds nested in them . . . Linnaeus pasted botanic prints as wall paper. . . Over the sanded, broad planked floors, he strewed his botanic manuscripts, which blinded nightingales splattered with droppings while racoons played and clawed among them.” Lisbet Koerner

Summer of 1771.
Linnaeus was still busy classifying, publishing, receiving materials, in touch with his students (“apostles”) and other intellectuals.

“I derived more real profit from your Philosophia botanica than from all books on morality.” J.J. Rousseau

“With the exception of Shakespeare and Spinoza, I know no one among the no longer living who has influenced me more strongly! . . . not, however in botany!” Goethe

Early natural histories were herbals or bestiaries. The former helped readers identify medicinal plants, the latter illuminated human nature through real and invented animals.

John Ray (1628–1705) eminent scientist and natural theologian developed a natural system of classification based on a diversity of characteristics, but this made it difficult to use.

According to cladistic criteria, lungfish are more similar to cows than to salmon (Matt Ridley) and orang-utans are more distant from chimps and gorillas than humans (S.J. Gould).

We share 90% of our genes with bananas. The body plans of humans, flies and fish are initiated using the same families of genes.

Changes in DNA (e.g. amino acid substitutions) usually result in no phenotypic change or are selectively neutral.

Long live cultural and biological diversity!

Linnaeus thought there were no more than 12,000 species of plants and animals, but we estimate between 15 to 80 million, about 2 million of which have been classified.

Ersamus Darwin (the grandfather) began translating Linnaeus himself. He wrote anywhere he could in his busy schedule, “to enlist Imagination under the banner of Science”.

In Zoonomia (1794-1796), he formulated an early theory of evolution, viewing the world as changing not static. He wrote many of his observations and theories in the medium of poetry. In the poem, The Temple of Nature, which influenced Shelley and Coleridge, he discusses how life evolved from a single common ancestor and wonders how new species evolve and how competition and sexual selection could cause change.

Alfred Lotka, a statistical analyst for an insurance company with an interest in biology, suggested that although apparently stable and mistaken for a “thing”, life was really a process. Life is an open system, a bioenergetic, biophysical, thermodynamic phenomenon.

“Energy is the only life.” William Blake

Most things are indistinct with fuzzy definitions, unlike most species. Hegel pointed out that at some moment in it its development (impossible to fix) an acorn becomes a new form, an oak tree.

innaeus grew up in an impoverished province, subject to famine, and championed self-reliance and patriotic old ‘Gothic foods’ like acorns, pork, and mead. Yet also suggested collecting and importing useful plants and animals.

His father Nils Ingemarson named himself Linneaus after a triple-trunked linden tree growing by the family farm. Locals thought it a magic tree. We all believe in magic.

He is dressed in a collage of garments; his shaman drum, a gift from a colleague, was illegal in Lapland itself. “He laughed – with the same curious spasmodic bark – when he heard that to make the Sami burn their shamanistic drums, the missionaries frightened them with mechanical toys.” Lisbet Koerner

‘The Shaman is the man who can die, and then return to life. . . He has the power of turning himself into animals.’ Marcia Eliade

Paradox: Order seeks disorder. The Enlightenment project was a dangerous hyper-rational grand narrative of progress that led to overconfidence in our technical domination of nature and other peoples. It was also a necessary project that used reason and education as catalysts for social and political change, and which had a healthy scepticism towards received knowledge. Similarly, Linnaeus’ imperial search for useful fauna and flora and establishing order was reductive and simplistic and removed any sense of ecology, but it was also immensely productive by facilitating the study of the natural world and opening it up to people’s attention, interest, and concern.

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