Monday, November 8, 2010

Linnæus ' little insult

I am reading a book about London's Natural History Museum that recounts a funny footnote to history perpetrated by Swedish botanist Carl Linnæus (1707-1776). Linnæus (1st image) is responsible for the binomial nomenclature used to name species of plants and animals by their genus and species (for instance humans are identified as Homo sapiens). Today, it is common to honor someone by naming a new species after him or her, such as the beetle Agaporomorphus colberti and spider Aptostichus stephencolberti, but unacceptable to dishonor someone in this way. Not yet so in Linnæus' day! A rival of his - German botanist Johann Georg Siegesbeck (1686-1755), who had earlier sent him several ingratiating letters (2nd image) - took exception to Linnæus classifying plants by their sexual organs, calling it "loathsome harlotry" and asking, "Who would have thought that bluebells, lilies and onions could be up to such immorality?" In his 1737 book, Siegesbeck openly mocked the Linnæan system, questioning whether God would really allow 20 or more male plants (with stamens) to have a single wife (with a pistil) in common, or let the wedded male plant have concubines in the shape of the nearby flowers. When another scientist tried to intervene, Linnæus wrote in a letter, "Let him also know that I will never forgive him his roguery, but also that I do not meet wickedness with wickedness, but smile at the idiot and fool, who pretends to be a botanicus, something that he will never become." In revenge, the Swede immortalized him in the name for a stinky weed!

1 comment:

  1. Ah... Vengeance of the intelligent... Priceless.


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