Carl Linnaeus features large this week in Nature. He is remembered as a towering figure whose impressive shadow looks likely to reach well beyond this 300 year anniversary. The Editorial draws attention to three distinctive contributions: "his systematic spirit, his stress on the concept of species, and the formal but adaptable conventions of nomenclature he introduced". Also, we read: "Nature is glad to celebrate his legacy in this special issue."
There is another aspect of Linnaeus that deserves our attention. The Father of Taxonomy considered that the living world was the product of a creator God: "Linnaeus believed in fixed species of knowable number created by God and observable by men." It should be pointed out that this summary reflects his early view; as he matured and developed in his thinking, he recognised the reality of speciation within distinct groups of organisms. But is his creation-oriented biology part of his legacy? Not in the opinion of the editors of Nature: "He would hopefully come round to evolutionary theory".
What if he failed to "come round"? What if he developed further his polyphyletic approach? What if he were to argue that the Tree of Life were a construct of ideology, not a result of empirical science? Would he then be disowned by the community of scientists who declare their pleasure in celebrating his legacy? Of course, these are all hypothetical questions. However, the deeper issue is this: Linnaeus did not separate his thinking into "public" and "private" compartments. He sought a unified understanding of the natural world. He was a theistic scientist. He was open to the possibility of seeing design in the living world, and he found it. He showed that design inferences were part of the early days of science, and that modern day attempts to banish intelligent design from the vocabulary of science take us away from the historic roots of our discipline. This is an aspect of Linnaeus' legacy that we do well not to overlook.
The legacy of Linnaeus
Nature 446, 231-232 (15 March 2007) | doi:10.1038/446231b
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