A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter XV
Natural history to the time of Linnaeus
Modern systematic botany and zoology are usually held to have their beginnings with Linnaeus. But there were certain precursors of the famous Swedish naturalist, some of them antedating him by more than a century, whose work must not be altogether ignored - such men as Konrad Gesner (1516-1565), Andreas Caesalpinus (1579-1603), Francisco Redi (1618-1676), Giovanni Alfonso Borelli (1608-1679), John Ray (1628-1705), Robert Hooke (1635-1703), John Swammerdam (1637-1680), Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694), Nehemiah Grew (1628-1711), Joseph Tournefort (1656-1708), Rudolf Jacob Camerarius (1665-1721), and Stephen Hales (1677-1761). The last named of these was, to be sure, a contemporary of Linnaeus himself, but Gesner and Caesalpinus belong, it will be observed, to so remote an epoch as that of Copernicus.

Reference has been made in an earlier chapter to the microscopic investigations of Marcello Malpighi, who, as there related, was the first observer who actually saw blood corpuscles pass through the capillaries. Another feat of this earliest of great microscopists was to dissect muscular tissue, and thus become the father of microscopic anatomy. But Malpighi did not confine his observations to animal tissues. He dissected plants as well, and he is almost as fully entitled to be called the father of vegetable anatomy, though here his honors are shared by the Englishman Grew. In 1681, while Malpighi's work, Anatomia plantarum, was on its way to the Royal Society for publication, Grew's Anatomy of Vegetables was in the hands of the publishers, making its appearance a few months earlier than the work of the great Italian. Grew's book was epoch-marking in pointing out the sex-differences in plants.

Robert Hooke developed the microscope, and took the first steps towards studying vegetable anatomy, publishing in 1667, among other results, the discovery of the cellular structure of cork. Hooke applied the name "cell" for the first time in this connection. These discoveries of Hooke, Malpighi, and Grew, and the discovery of the circulation of the blood by William Harvey shortly before, had called attention to the similarity of animal and vegetable structures. Hales made a series of investigations upon animals to determine the force of the blood pressure; and similarly he made numerous statical experiments to determine the pressure of the flow of sap in vegetables. His Vegetable Statics, published in 1727, was the first important work on the subject of vegetable physiology, and for this reason Hales has been called the father of this branch of science.

In botany, as well as in zoology, the classifications of Linnaeus of course supplanted all preceding classifications, for the obvious reason that they were much more satisfactory; but his work was a culmination of many similar and more or less satisfactory attempts of his predecessors. About the year 1670 Dr. Robert Morison (1620-1683), of Aberdeen, published a classification of plants, his system taking into account the woody or herbaceous structure, as well as the flowers and fruit. This classification was supplanted twelve years later by the classification of Ray, who arranged all known vegetables into thirty-three classes, the basis of this classification being the fruit. A few years later Rivinus, a professor of botany in the University of Leipzig, made still another classification, determining the distinguishing character chiefly from the flower, and Camerarius and Tournefort also made elaborate classifications. On the Continent Tournefort's classification was the most popular until the time of Linnaeus, his systematic arrangement including about eight thousand species of plants, arranged chiefly according to the form of the corolla.

Most of these early workers gave attention to both vegetable and animal kingdoms. They were called naturalists, and the field of their investigations was spoken of as "natural history." The specialization of knowledge had not reached that later stage in which botanist, zoologist, and physiologist felt their labors to be sharply divided. Such a division was becoming more and more necessary as the field of knowledge extended; but it did not become imperative until long after the time of Linnaeus. That naturalist himself, as we shall see, was equally distinguished as botanist and as zoologist. His great task of organizing knowledge was applied to the entire range of living things.

Carolus Linnaeus was born in the town of Rashult, in Sweden, on May 13, 1707. As a child he showed great aptitude in learning botanical names, and remembering facts about various plants as told him by his father. His eagerness for knowledge did not extend to the ordinary primary studies, however, and, aside from the single exception of the study of physiology, he proved himself an indifferent pupil. His backwardness was a sore trial to his father, who was desirous that his son should enter the ministry; but as the young Linnaeus showed no liking for that calling, and as he had acquitted himself well in his study of physiology, his father at last decided to allow him to take up the study of medicine. Here at last was a field more to the liking of the boy, who soon vied with the best of his fellow-students for first honors. Meanwhile he kept steadily at work in his study of natural history, acquiring considerable knowledge of ornithology, entomology, and botany, and adding continually to his collection of botanical specimens. In 1729 his botanical knowledge was brought to the attention of Olaf Rudbeck, professor of botany in the University of Upsala, by a short paper on the sexes of plants which Linnaeus had prepared. Rudbeck was so impressed by some of the ideas expressed in this paper that he appointed the author as his assistant the following year.

This was the beginning of Linnaes's career as a botanist. The academic gardens were thus thrown open to him, and he found time at his disposal for pursuing his studies between lecture hours and in the evenings. It was at this time that he began the preparation of his work the Systema naturae, the first of his great works, containing a comprehensive sketch of the whole field of natural history. When this work was published, the clearness of the views expressed and the systematic arrangement of the various classifications excited great astonishment and admiration, and placed Linaeus at once in the foremost rank of naturalists. This work was followed shortly by other publications, mostly on botanical subjects, in which, among other things, he worked out in detail his famous "system."

This system is founded on the sexes of plants, and is usually referred to as an "artificial method" of classification because it takes into account only a few marked characters of plants, without uniting them by more general natural affinities. At the present time it is considered only as a stepping-stone to the "natural" system; but at the time of its promulgation it was epoch-marking in its directness and simplicity, and therefore superiority, over any existing systems.

One of the great reforms effected by Linnaeus was in the matter of scientific terminology. Technical terms are absolutely necessary to scientific progress, and particularly so in botany, where obscurity, ambiguity, or prolixity in descriptions are fatally misleading. Linnaeus's work contains something like a thousand terms, whose meanings and uses are carefully explained. Such an array seems at first glance arbitrary and unnecessary, but the fact that it has remained in use for something like two centuries is indisputable evidence of its practicality. The descriptive language of botany, as employed by Linnaeus, still stands as a model for all other subjects.

Closely allied to botanical terminology is the subject of botanical nomenclature. The old method of using a number of Latin words to describe each different plant is obviously too cumbersome, and several attempts had been made prior to the time of Linnaeus to substitute simpler methods. Linnaeus himself made several unsatisfactory attempts before he finally hit upon his system of "trivial names," which was developed in his Species plantarum, and which, with some, minor alterations, remains in use to this day. The essence of the system is the introduction of binomial nomenclature - that is to say, the use of two names and no more to designate any single species of animal or plant. The principle is quite the same as that according to which in modern society a man has two names, let us say, John Doe, the one designating his family, the other being individual. Similarly each species of animal or plant, according to the Linnaeean system, received a specific or "trivial" name; while various species, associated according to their seeming natural affinities into groups called genera, were given the same generic name. Thus the generic name given all members of the cat tribe being Felis, the name Felis leo designates the lion; Felis pardus, the leopard; Felis domestica, the house cat, and so on. This seems perfectly simple and natural now, but to understand how great a reform the binomial nomenclature introduced we have but to consult the work of Linnaeus's predecessors. A single illustration will suffice. There is, for example, a kind of grass, in referring to which the naturalist anterior to Linnaeus, if he would be absolutely unambiguous, was obliged to use the following descriptive formula: Gramen Xerampelino, Miliacea, praetenuis ramosaque sparsa panicula, sive Xerampelino congener, arvense, aestivum; gramen minutissimo semine. Linnaeus gave to this plant the name Poa bulbosa - a name that sufficed, according to the new system, to distinguish this from every other species of vegetable. It does not require any special knowledge to appreciate the advantage of such a simplification.

While visiting Paris in 1738 Linnaeus met and botanized with the two botanists whose "natural method" of classification was later to supplant his own "artificial system." These were Bernard and Antoine Laurent de Jussieu. The efforts of these two scientists were directed towards obtaining a system which should aim at clearness, simplicity, and precision, and at the same time be governed by the natural affinities of plants. The natural system, as finally propounded by them, is based on the number of cotyledons, the structure of the seed, and the insertion of the stamens. Succeeding writers on botany have made various modifications of this system, but nevertheless it stands as the foundation-stone of modern botanical classification.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.