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Linné on line arrow Linnaeus and Ecology arrow Linnaeus and the ideas of ecology arrow Linnaeus, physicotheology, and protoecology

Linnaeus, physicotheology, and protoecology

"The importance of Linnaeus in the evolution of ecology is very great..."

Linnaeus had a holistic perspective in which nature and God, the material and the spiritual, were intertwined. God worked through nature, forming individual organisms and regulating the relations among them. This divine order and purpose, which Linnaeus also calls ‘the economy of nature,’ underlay the appearance and function of plants, animals, and all of nature.

This perspective was not new in the 18th century. On the contrary, it was a highly traditional perception of the relationship between God and nature. This perspective is found in Christian, neo-platonic, alchemical/hermetic, and stoic traditions, and Linnaeus exploited all of these traditions in his natural philosophy. Of course, this also colored his protoecology.

Physicotheology, which makes up the most apparent layer in Linnaeus’ philosophy of nature, has its roots in Antiquity and the Church Fathers. In a more specific sense, physicotheology emerges in the late 17th century and blossoms in the 18th, both as a literary genre and as a research program.

Physicotheology as a whole inspired natural history in several ways:

Drawings of animals and insects by Linnaeus from his Iter Lapponicum.

Linnaeus’ Oeconomia naturae and Politia naturae won immediate recognition. They became classics in their field, and Linnaeus is one of the foremost among contemporary interpreters of the glorious plan of Creation. Through his works this intellectual tradition was carried on into the 19th century.

In the above-mentioned theses and in writings like Curiositas Naturalis and Oratio de telluris habitabilis incremento he developed several ideas in this field that point forward to an ecological way of thinking. Many of Linnaeus’ observations of this sort also punctuate his travelogues and are interjected in his descriptions of species. Also in Pan suecicus and Address on the Peculiarities of Insects he touches on protecological themes.

The concept of the ‘economy of nature’ involves, among other things, the fact that nature is seen as ‘self-renewing’ and ‘self-cleansing,’ that nature is constantly renewing itself and disposing of its wastes, dead organisms, and surpluses. Nature contains cyclical processes and relations that keep the earth living and healthy. In Journey to Wästgötaland from 1747 we find a long and graphic description of the cycle of nature: “Thereby it happens that when animals die, they are transformed into mulch, and mulch into plants, and these plants are eaten by animals, whereby they become parts of animals...”

“Nature is God’s law, placed in all things during creation, according to which they multiply, sustain, and destroy themselves,” says Linnaeus in Politiae naturae. By this he means that even ‘harm’ done by some animals to other plants and animals is actually of good, not only for the individual species but also for the whole. The harm prevents species from multiplying too rapidly and thereby destroying the foundations of their existence.

Another method Linnaeus used to describe the connections in nature was the analogy. Analogies existed on all levels and between the different levels of nature, according to Linnaeus. One example from his Fundamenta Ornithologicas will serve as an illustration. In the sixteenth paragraph of the thesis, the quality of the meat of various orders of birds is compared to that of various orders of mammals: the meat of passerines (Passeres) is analogous to that of rodents (Glires), for instance. Another example of Linnaeus’ analogies between orders of birds and mammals is found in the twelfth edition of Systema naturae. There birds of prey (Accipitres) are compared to predatory animals (Ferae), crow birds (Picae) to apes (Primates), and geese (Anseres) to hoofed animals (Belluae).

At first glance these analogies might appear quaint and simply taken out of the blue. But a close look reveals that Linnaeus captured in them correlations that he had observed in nature, connections that are expressed in entirely different terms today, that is, in the ecological and evolutionary language of modern biology. If we look back at the example of the analogies between birds and mammals, it is possible to see the ‘empiricism’ behind them. Linnaeus maintained that birds of pray were analogous to predatory animals, and these animals do in fact evince convergent features in their evolution. Further, crow birds are the mentally most advanced and highly developed birds, and the same can be said of apes among mammals. Geese are the only birds that graze, and to a certain extent they occupy the same niche as grazing hoofed animals.

In the fourth chapter of Fundamenta Ornithologicas, “De Usu Avium,” Linnaeus takes up the utility of birds, a concept that had a wide-ranging meaning in the 18th century and testified to a holistic view of the world. On the one hand, Linnaeus treats the utlity of birds in nature, that is, their place in the divinely ordered creation. He exemplifies this with vultures that take care of dead animals and insect eaters that regulate the number of insects and larvae. On the other hand, he deals with the direct utility of birds for humans, which, to Linnaeus, is great. Besides the obvious value as game, he mentions the use of the ostrich as a riding animal in Ethiopia, the art of falconry, tame cormorants that fetch fish in China, and the use of fowl down for pillows. Birds can also be used to predict weather. Finally Linnaeus adds in something that is best translated as ‘aesthetic utility.’ The beauty value of birds was also something ornithologists would point out. Birds adorn the world, making it pleasant and enjoyable, their beauty pleasing the eye and their song the ear. The sense of taste is also looked after when the fowl lies on a plate, with the dotterel offering the best meat. There is even a bird that smells good: the musk duck, Anas moschata.

Linnaeus concludes with a few lines that could have been lifted from a physicotheological sermon. He states that birds excite all of our senses and that a place without birds would be the saddest of all places. Anyone who calmly and attentively listens can also hear how birds praise their Creator. According to Linnaeus, everyone who has a sound soul and a sound body is thus led toward knowledge of God and his providence.

Here we clearly see the dual movement in physicotheological thinking. On the one hand, a movement toward the created, the material, as an expression of the divine. On the other hand, a movement in which plants, birds, and animals—all creation—point beyond, back to the source of everything created, God. Physicotheology is a holistic perspective, a synthesis of religion and science.