Happy 300th Birthday Charles


Today is the 300th birthday of Carolus Linnaeus, the great-grand-daddy of taxonomists everywhere. Dave Snowden has celebrated by publishing a gracious and hugely complimentary review of my book on his blog.

Elsewhere, the rest of the world has quite rightly focused on “Taxonomicus Chas.” as I affectionately call him. The blogosphere is humming even as I write this. But there are undercurrents to the celebrations that express the tensions buried deep in his pioneering work all those years ago.

Leigh Andrew briefly describes Linnaeus’ contributions to science and notes that Darwin first presented his theory of natural selection at the Linnaean Society in London. But Björn Kröger (writing in German) teases out the real tensions in biology around species classification (more lightly but entertainingly referenced by the Brothers Bleiman).

They are not just methodological tensions. The Economist recently suggested that biological taxonomists were dishonouring the Linnaean tradition and debasing their currency by allowing the politics of conservation to determine their reclassification of species – creating new species distinctions in order to put the spotlight on endangered species.

David Pappand counters that genetic makeup alone doesn’t suffice to make meaningful distinctions between species – for example, behaviour, habitat and metabolism can mean crucial distinctions in terms of viability and survival.This is an old taxonomic problem which goes all the way back to the rivalry between the spartan Linnaeus and the profligate Comte de Buffon: go for the objective, observable and the simple (makes a lovely “scientific” tree), or try to accommodate multiple factors, which makes the knowledge world more complex, but more flexible and adaptive for different needs.

Meanwhile Sarah of Manchester reflects on the taxonomist-as-obscurantist perceptions of Linnaeus’ legacy, but bravely steps up to defend him: “Dad was whinging about the likes of Titchmarsh using the latin names of plants in order to confuse the viewer, and for gardeners to be elitist in their own botanically taxonomified (neologism) world – which is a fair complaint – but attacking the bloke who invented it seemed slightly unfair.”

I’m not so sure that Sarah’s generosity is completely earned… Linnaeus was an ambitious man and came from an economically uncertain youth. He plugged himself relentlessly throughout his career, and in many ways built an “iron cage” (there is no way except my way) myth around taxonomy work, ruthlessly sweeping aside alternate and competing views. To my mind the closest analogy in modern day organisation studies is Geert Hofstede’s work on organisation culture. The innovator dominates, drowns out alternatives, and suppresses subsequent innovation.

Although he liked to wear funny clothes and had a distinct pornographic streak to his character (but who’s perfect?) Linnaeus added great value to science in his day, largely because his implacable standardisation allowed scientists to at last compare notes and exchange knowledge using a consistent vocabulary. His lockdown on perceptions about how species (and other categorisaton sets) should be described has lasted far too long however, and in consequence there are still far too many people who actually believe in unified, standardised taxonomies for everything. The dominant Linnaean vision of what a taxonomy is has meant that people who are doing taxonomy work – such as the great Mendeleev – are rarely recognised for it.

If the walls of the Linnaean dam are cracking in biology, then the lessons are clear for those of us in knowledge management – standardisation as a process is a good thing, because it enables knowledge exchange; but alternative ways of looking at our categories are also important to support differing needs (eg the geneticist vs the ecologist), and stabilisation of vocabularies and categories – however useful – is always temporary, because our needs and our purposes change constantly – dammit.

So I do wish you a happy birthday Chas., but hope your legacy stays focused on flower shows while we grow out of our dependance on your comforting but dangerous discipline.

(Thanks to Wikipedia for the picture)

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