Linnaeus, Buffon, and classification in biology


This video from the Philippines is called Linnaeus 300 years in Manila part I.

At the natural history museum, the biggest of three exhibits now is about classification in biology.

In the seventeenth century in Europe, people who could afford them often had cabinets of curiosity: rooms or chests of drawers with antique or pseudo antique coins, art objects, and natural objects, to impress visitors.

During the “Enlightenment” in the eighteenth century, the idea arose there should be systematic order in those collections. Natural objects were separated from human made objects in special collections, eventually giving rise to natural history museums.

In this, the “System of nature” by Carolus Linnaeus, dividing plants and animals into classes, orders, and species with binomial Latin names, helped.

As Linnaeus was born three hundred years ago, the classification exhibition is to remember him.

And also to remember another important biologist, born in the same year 1707: Frenchman Buffon.

Buffon was in many respects different from, and a rival to, Linnaeus.

Buffon had a more “dynamic” approach to nature and its species, while Linnaeus’ was more “static”.

Buffon defined a species as: if there is interbreeding with a different species, then offspring will be unable to procreate itself. A definition still often used today.

Against Linnaeus’ System of Nature, Buffon and his supporters said that nature did not have a system.

In the systemic part of the botanical garden, there is now a sculpture of Linnaeus; but also plant beds and signs indicating that DNA and other recent research have found that many plants which Linnaeus and later botanists thought were related, are not related; while plants they thought were unrelated, are in fact related.

However, Linnaeus’ idea of one Latin genus name plus one species name still stands.

It made things much easier for biologists since pre-Linnaeus times, when about every author about nature promoted his own nomenclature.

Linnaeus’ system implies various species are related.

He did not draw the conclusion from this that species may evolve from common ancestors (which would have upset many eighteenth century Christian believers; Linnaeus was one himself).

That would mainly be done by nineteenth century scientists like Charles Darwin (see also here).

Still, one might say Linnaeus played a part in preparing the ground for the idea of evolution.

One might say Buffon prepared the ground here even more. More skeptic on religion than Linnaeus, he strove to refute the ideas of biblical literalist “creationist” eighteenth century “Diluvians” like Scheuchzer, who believed that the earth was only a few thousand years old, and fossils were the results of the biblical deluge (see also here).

Buffon had an experiment with a hot iron ball, which he let cool off till it was normal temperature. He calculated from this that the earth was certainly older than the six thousand or something years calculated from the bible; seventy-five thousand years, Buffon said. So, still far shorter than in later science, but in the right direction compared to his contemporaries.

Supporters of Buffon and Linnaeus clashed also during the French revolution. Somewhat paradoxically, contrary to what one might expect of political revolutionaries being more attracted to Buffon’s dynamic theories than to Linnaeus’ ‘conservative’ ones, that was not the case.

One of the paradoxes of biology in the eighteenth century, when Voltaire, often considered a paragon of the Enlightenment, refused to believe in fossils; while the “creationist” Scheuchzer did. Though getting both the species and age of Andrias scheuchzeri wrong, Scheuchzer’s questionable work did give an impetus to the rise of palaeontology.

In 1911 the discovery that the world was billions of years old changed our view of the world for ever: read article here.

Carl Linnaeus Invented The Index Card: here.

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7 thoughts on “Linnaeus, Buffon, and classification in biology

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