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Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778): his life, philosophy and science and its relationship to modern biology and medicine

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The system of binomial nomenclature and wider taxonomic paradigm forged by Carolus Linnaeus in the 18th century came from his original approach to understanding the natural world. It was also a product of environmental, economic, social, cultural, political and theological influences of the time. For Linnaeus the identification, naming and classification of different kinds of animals, plants, diseases, fossils and rocks had practical as well as theoretical importance. In his life and work he clearly demonstrates the 'scientific approach' including careful information gathering, exploration, empiricism, dissection, accurate observations and published descriptions. There is an inspirational use of morphological characters in comparative diagnoses, a requirement for material evidence to support hypotheses and the systematic and hierarchical organisation of knowledge. However, techniques for specimen preservation and analysis were limited and sample sizes too small to properly characterise wild populations. Thus he bequeathed artificial and 'typological' more than biological concepts determined by form and pattern rather than process. Species and genera were regarded as fixed, objective entities. This is sometimes associated with the supposedly stultifying effects of Aristotelian essentialism on Linnaean and later taxonomy. 'Natural' classification, as far as developed, was not phyletic but, instead, reflected Wolffianism, a modified creationist doctrine. Nonetheless, Linnaeus was the first to formally recognise the close affinity between humans and primates, a controversial idea later fully developed by Charles Darwin. Even so, Linnaeus did not always distinguish between mythological versus real creatures and incredible versus credible hypotheses. His understanding of 'cause and effect' was circumscribed by prevailing Lutheran theology and Cartesian mechanistic philosophy. Linnaeus was as much a working physician, agriculturalist and land surveyor as he was a taxonomist. Contemporary economic biology and biotechnology are anticipated in his animal and plant breeding and pearl culturing experiments. In the great body of Linnaeus' letters, manuscripts and books are discernable foundations for many other later disciplines. These include: anthropology, biogeography, bioinformatics, biomechanics, biological control, conservation, ecology, epidemiology, Darwinian evolution, ethnography, medical diagnostics, microbiology, palaeontology, pharmacology and phylogenetic systematics.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: North of England Zoological Society, Zoological Gardens, Upton, Chester CH2 1LH, U.K.

Publication date: 01 February 2009

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