Monday, May 21, 2018

Misunderstandings and misrepresentations about Linné's alleged family motto

This is a joint post by Magnus Lidén and David Morrison

The Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) is well known in biology as the father of modern taxonomic nomenclature, although he is better known in his own country for writing a series of travel books that cataloged the cultures and resources of Sweden.* He was knighted in 1757, and took the noble name Carl von Linné, as well as adopting a coat of arms (shown below).

It is often claimed that at the same time he adopted a family motto:
Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit [Latin]
God created, Linnaeus organized [English]
Gud skapade, Linné ordnade [Swedish]
Gott erschuf, Linné ordnete [German]
This claim is repeated around the internet, almost always attributing the words directly to the man himself: Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit he liked to say (Smithsonian Institution); Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit he took as his motto (Harvard University); Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit was how Linnaeus himself summed up his lifetime achievements (Uppsala University; and Svenska Linnésällskapet — the Swedish Linnaean Society).

The motto has been used both to mock him for his presumptuousness and to praise him for his piety. Primary references for this alleged motto are, however, conspicuously absent from any of the web sites, and our search of the literature, as well as consultation with Linné experts, have failed to present any evidence that he ever used this motto himself.

In the standard Linné biography of Fries (1903), it is simply referred to as an "illuminating epigram which admiring contemporaries used" (see Jackson 1923), which does not explain how it came to be attributed to Linnaeus, nor where it come from. FV Hope (Anon. 1843) suspected it had originated as an act of malice. Although it has been used to that end by his adversaries, it was originally meant to express awe and admiration.

As far as we can determine, the first English-language use of the motto appears as the frontispiece of this book:
The Life of Sir Charles Linnæus, Knight of the Swedish Order of the Polar Star, &c, &c.
to which is Added a Copious List of His Works, and a Biographical Sketch of the Life of His Son

By D.H. Stoever, Ph.D.
Translated from the original German
By Joseph Trapp, A.M.
B. and J. White, Fleet Street, London

As you can see, the motto is used as a banner situated directly below the coat of arms of Linné, and to all appearances is a part of it, with a portrait in profile above. This gives the impression that the words were coined by Linné himself (as was the case for the coat of arms).

However, the original German-language version of the book reveals a very different situation:
Leben des Ritters Carl von Linné
Nebst den biographischen Merkwürdigkeiten seines Sohnes, des Professors Carl von Linné
und einem vollständigen Verzeichnisse seiner Schriften, deren Ausgaben, Übersetzungen, Auszüge und Commentare

von Dietrich Heinrich Stöver, Doctor der Philosophie
Benj. Gottl. Hoffmann, Hamburg

The frontispiece has the alleged motto flanking the coat of arms of Linnaeus, rather than being part of it. This makes all the difference to the interpretation. The portrait, incidentally, is a poor copper engraving, drawn from a plaster medallion by Inländer from 1773 (cf. Tullberg 1907).

Stöver reveals his source for the words in his 1792 preface:
Das Motto unter dem Bildnisse Linné's [...] wird hoffentlich mit der Religiosität keines Lesers in Collision kommen. Es rührt von einem Manne her, der ein langer Freund des Vestorbnen war.
However, in the 1794 English translation, "langer Freund" is embellished to the point of confusion:
The motto beneath the portrait of Linnaeus [...] will not, it is humbly presumed, offend the religious opinions of any reader. It originates with a man who has lived many years in the closest ties of intimacy with the deceased.**
Whoever devised it, it seems probable that this phrase is a post-Linnéan laudation communicated to Stöver orally or by letter. At any rate, it do not appear in print until 14 years after Linné's death.

This may seem like a rather harmless "factoid", but it highlights how easily erroneous beliefs can be established, even in a scientific environment.

Other myths

This brings us to a second myth, a misconstruction of the very core of Linné's views on classification, which has seriously distorted how the development of 18th century systematics is perceived. The widely held picture of Linné as an Aristotelian Essentialist, classifying nature by Medieval Scholastic Principles of Logical Division, dates from the work of Cain (1958; see Winsor 2006), and was uncritically accepted by several influential authors, such as Mayr (1982) and Futuyma (1998). But this is like stating that Darwin was a creationist!

On the contrary, the scholastic approach is strongly criticized by Linné. He was the first to clarify the conceptual difference between the top-down divisionis leges (which he claimed will by necessity result in artificial groupings and disruption of natural taxa) and synthetic systematization. Linné emphasized that natural taxa are not defined by characters but must be built from the basic entities (species) upwards (Linnaeus 1737). He was far ahead of his time in doing this. The misrepresentation of Linné's views by Cain's and his followers has been thoroughly debunked by, for example, Skvortsov (2002), Winsor (2006), Müller-Wille (2013) and others, but it seems to be hard to eradicate.

A more amusing misunderstanding is the so-called flower clock, reputedly planted by Linné in the Hortus Academicus of Uppsala (now called Linnéträdgården, The Linné garden), about which numerous visitors and journalists ask each year. However, Linné's flower clock (1751) was a list of selected phenological observations, which never materialized in the Uppsala academic garden as an actual plantation, nor was it ever meant to. Attempts to plant flower clocks in gardens have shown that they are not very accurate as to general time-keeping across seasons and latitudes.

It seems to be quite common in English to insist on the use of titles for British people but not for foreigners. As noted by Stöver and Trapp in their book, "Carl von Linné" is best treated as the Swedish equivalent of "Sir Carl Linnaeus".


Anon. (1843) Summary of a lecture by F. V. Hope – on the portraits of Linnaeus – read for the Linnean society 21 Feb 1843 (E. Forster, Esq. in the chair). The Athenæum (Journal of english and Foreign Literature, Science and the Fine Arts) 801: 218. [in vol. 1 for the year 1843, installments 783 to 817]

Cain AJ (1958) Logic and memory in Linnaeus' system of taxonomy. Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London 169: 144-163.

Fries TM (1903) Linné. Lefnadsteckning, 2 vols. Stockholm.

Futuyma DJ (1998) Evolutionary Biology, 3 edn. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland MA.

Jackson BD (1923) Linnaeus. Abridged and adapted from Fries 1903. London.

Linnaeus C (1737) Genera Plantarum. Conrad Wishoff, Leiden.

Linnaeus C (1751) Philosophia Botanica. Godofr. Kiesewetter, Stockholm.

Mayr E (1982) The Growth of Biological Thought. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.

Müller-Wille S (2013) Systems and how Linnaeus looked at them in retrospect. Annals of Science 70: 305-317.

Skvortsov AK (2002) Systematics on the threshold of the 21st century: traditional principles and basics from the contemporary viewpoint. Zhurnal Obshchei Biologii 63: 82-93. [In Russian; abridged translation by Irina Kadis on WWW]

Tullberg T (1907) Linnéporträtt. Aktiebolaget Ljus, Stockholm.

Winsor MP (2006) Linnaeus' biology was not essentialist. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 93: 2-7.

* On May 18 we had Linnés trädgårdsfest, which is Uppsala's celebration of Linné's working life in the town.

**According to Guido Grimm, a more literal translation would be: "It originates from an old friend of the deceased, who, being of rare noble character, summarized the widely accepted opinion(s) of experts".


  1. Linné emphasized that natural taxa are not defined by characters but must be built from the basic entities (species) upwards (Linnaeus 1737).

    Are you sure he regarded species and not genera as basic? And that as early as 1737?

    **According to Guido Grimm, a more literal translation would be: "It originates from an old friend of the deceased, who, being of rare noble character, summarized the widely accepted opinion(s) of experts".

    That must include the next sentence. Here's my literal translation of the two sentences you quote:

    "The motto under Linné's image will hopefully* not collide with any reader's religiosity. It originates from a man who was a long[-time] friend of the deceased."

    Not a word there about anyone's noble character or any expert opinions.

    * The currently spreading meaning of "hopefully", i.e. "so we hope".

    1. My translation doesn't include the next sentence but the rest of the sentence. In full it reads (preface p. XIV) "... des Verstorbnen war und der mit einem seltnen Adel des Charakters die ausgezeichnetsten, allgemein anerkannten Kenner-Einsichten verbindet."

      Haven't read the English version but I could imagine given the quite poetic German (used to be the language of Dichter and Denker) of Stöver's preface, a bit more got lost in translation.

    2. Ah, that explains things! There's still no summarizing, though: "...was ...of the deceased and who united the most excellent, generally recognized expert insights with a rare nobility of character."

      Yes, very poetic and full of 18th-century archaisms.