Carolus Linnaeus

by David F. Coppedge

What’s more scientific than a scientific name?  To a scientist, your pet dog is Canis familiaris.  Your pet cat is Felis domesticus.  A grizzly bear is Ursus horribilus, and you are Homo sapiens.  The convention of using two Latin names (binomial nomenclature), denoting genus and species, is the foundation of taxonomy, the science of classification of living things.  It comes straight out of the work of Carl Linnaeus.  Why did he pursue the huge task of classifying plants and animals?  His inspiration came from the Bible’s first chapter, which states that God created plants and animals to reproduce “after their kind.”  Linnaeus was attempting to determine the nature of the Genesis kinds.

Linnaeus is rightly called the Father of Taxonomy.  His classification scheme assumes that organisms fall into recognizable groups of animals in nested hierarchies.  At the lowest level are species, which are loosely defined as organisms capable of producing fertile offspring.  (This is complicated by the inability to determine this for fossils, and the difficulty of determining the reproductive success for many living organisms.  Sometimes males and females of the same species can look so different, they might be incorrectly classified as separate species.)

Species (pronounced SPEE-sees for both singular and plural) are sometimes subdivided into subspecies and varieties, which are often labeled with a third Latin name (as in Homo sapiens sapiens, or with a variety designation, as in “Genus species, var. variety-name.”  Species, the bottom of hierarchy, is the second term in the Linnaean system, and is not capitalized.  The first term, which is capitalized, is the next unit in the hierarchy: the genus.  Working up the ladder are families, orders, classes, phyla, and kingdoms.

It becomes clear that the nested hierarchy is a problem for evolution.  The farther up the scheme, the larger the gaps between types.  At the level of phyla, for instances, think of the huge differences between a starfish (an echinoderm) and a fish (a chordate), or between a beetle (an arthropod) and a snail (a mollusk).  Within each phylum are many common characters, but there are large, systematic gaps between the phyla, classes, orders and families.  House cats, bobcats, lions, tigers and cheetahs share many common characteristics within the cat family, but in every case we know, these are always distinct from members of the dog family.  Dogs and cats belong to the class mammalia, but all mammals are very different from all class aves (birds).  Mammals and birds share characteristics (a backbone) within the phylum chordata (subphylum vertebrata), but all vertebrates are very different from clams in the phylum mollusca.  Higher up, members of the plant kingdom are even more different from members of the animal kingdom.

The same picture of increasing gaps holds true within the fossil record.  This fact is common knowledge to both creationists and evolutionists.  The latter take the data and infer a branching tree connecting them all, but the actual observational evidence shows only tips of the branches, not the trunks and nodes.  The true picture is more like a lawn than a tree; small groups of organisms at the species level show variations, but there is no evidence, living or fossil, for one “kind” of animal changing into another, such as a sponge into a jellyfish, a fish into a salamander, or a cow into a horse.  Actually, one could say that species are the only level we observe.  The other relationships – families, orders, classes, phyla – are all inferred because they share one or more similar characteristics.

Taxonomists can be confused about what phylum or class an organism should be placed in, because many animals and plants are composed of mosaics of characteristics from several groups.  Consider the platypus, for example.  It lays eggs like a reptile, has webbed feet like a duck, a venomous spur like a rattlesnake, and fur like a mammal.  Classification can be even more confusing for one-celled organisms.  Some have been recently placed into whole kingdoms separate from plants and animals.  It is often an arbitrary choice where to classify an organism.  The sunflower family, for instance, is kind of a catch-all category for many diverse flowering plants that do not fit well into other families.  Evolutionists have a hard time with these mosaics, often invoking the hand-waving answer “convergent evolution” when asked to explain how “unrelated” organisms share common characteristics, such as the remarkable similarities between placental mammals and their marsupial look-alikes.

On the other end, it is often difficult to know where the species boundaries are.  Consider that bison and many different kinds of cattle can interbreed (ever had a beefalo burger?).  Horses, donkeys and zebras can interbreed more or less, and so can lions and tigers, yet most of us would consider each of these animals to be separate species.  At the level of species, many organisms show great variety in size, shape and coloration: think of dogs, pigeons and roses for example.  Yet higher up, at the genus and family levels, there appear to be stricter boundaries.  No one has ever seen a dog change into a cat, or a goldfish turn into a seahorse.

Evolutionists believe that variation has no limits and all things are interrelated, but that is a belief, not an observed fact.  Even breeders know they can only take a horse or a rose or a cow or a sugar beet so far before a trait becomes impossible to modify further.  Taking the data as we find it, without an evolutionary presupposition, we see living things organized into groups within groups within groups, with the major groups separated from one another by large gaps.  The Linnaean classification system reflects the observational evidence.  Despite its occasional points of debate or confusion, it has stood the test of time.  Sadly, some evolutionists are trying to push an alternate “PhyloCode” classification scheme, which organizes plants and animals according to their presumed evolutionary relationships.  If successful, this would only cloud the issue.  It would embed evolutionary assumptions into the way students approach the data.

Young Carl von Linne was a lover of plants and wildlife, as was his father, a Lutheran minister, and avid gardener.  His father hoped young Carl would go into the ministry, but it was evident the boy was a born naturalist.  Though he eventually pursued a medical career, and both practiced and taught medicine as a professional, Carl’s heart was forever drawn to the natural world.  He has been described as a workaholic with a mania for organization.  He loved learning, reading and knowledge, and was also ruggedly strong and physically fit.  Carl would need those qualities to take on a project of classifying every plant and animal on earth!

Others before him had shared this passion.  John Ray, the English naturalist who had died two years before Linnaeus’ birth, was a like-minded naturalist, who, by the way, was also a Christian and a creationist.  But the universal classification scheme using Latin binomial nomenclature was the innovation Linnaeus brought to the discipline.  He chose Latin because it was not only the universal language of science, but being a dead language, it was stable and unchanging.  It provided a universal scheme that all naturalists in all countries could use to communicate with each other, as well as to publish their discoveries and cross-check their findings against those of others.  At age 40, Carl latinized his own name into Carolus Linnaeus the name by which he is best known.  He moved to Holland in 1735 for three years, then back to Sweden, where he lived out his days as a doctor and professor.  Taxonomy remained his obsessive hobby throughout his life.

Linnaeus at first actually believed it possible to classify every living thing in the world.  At age 25, Carl secured a grant from the University of Uppsala to take a thousand mile tour of Lapland to catalog plants.  One can only imagine the delights and dangers, the fatigue and satisfaction this “creation safari” entailed as he waded icy streams, slogged through bogs and avoided nervous landowners.  He kept detailed journals and catalogued thousands of plants.  A similar trip through central Sweden added many more.  Linnaeus traveled over four thousand miles on foot in his quest to catalog all the species in “God’s garden.”  He also leveraged his talent to students that he motivated, who often went on long and arduous journeys to far lands to collect more specimens (Dan Graves said a third of these died on their dangerous treks).  Linnaeus continued updating, expanding and improving his catalogs throughout his life, and as a legacy, he left the Linnaean Society, which continues to this day as an international taxonomic institution.

“Linnaeus was a firm creationist,” says Dan Graves, but comments that “Certain aspects of his theories were enigmatic.  He seems to have doubted that there was a universal flood.  Sediments were deposited over a long period of time, he said.  He paid little attention to fossils and insisted on classifying humans with apes.”  Nevertheless, Linnaeus did not believe in any theory of evolution.  He firmly believed that the kinds God had created in the Garden of Eden still existed.  Although he believed in fixity of species at first, he did allow for variation with the Genesis kinds later on.

Linnaeus wrote in rhapsodic lines about the wisdom of God in creation.  Dan Graves provides some examples:

“One is completely stunned by the resourcefulness of the Creator.”

“I saw the infinite, all-knowing and all-powerful God from behind…. I followed His footsteps over nature’s fields and saw everywhere an eternal wisdom and power, an inscrutable perfection.”

Linnaeus introduced the idea of classifying plants by their reproductive structures.  Sometimes he went a little overboard in his descriptions: “The flowers’ leaves… serve as bridal beds which the Creator has so gloriously arranged, adorned with such noble bed curtains, and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials with so much the greater solemnity.”  Notwithstanding the romanticism, who could doubt that a firm belief in the Genesis version of creation can be a strong stimulus for scientific research?

Linnaeus continued classifying plants and animals into his sixties, till he suffered a series of strokes.  The frontispiece of his magnum opus Species Plantarum, the work that set established taxonomy as a scientific discipline, is a passage from the Psalms that could be viewed as a life verse of all great creation scientists both past and present, who similarly quoted it with feeling: Psalm 104:24 – “O Jehovah [Lord], how ample are Thy works!  How wisely Thou hast fashioned them!  How full the earth is of Thy possessions!”

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