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Linné on line arrow Linnaeus and Ecology arrow Linnaeus and the ideas of ecology arrow Summary


Linnaeus’ protoecology was intimately associated with his fundamentally religious view of nature. His natural philosophy, the most prominent component of which was physicotheology, offered both useful concepts and important incentives for researching the contexts of nature. Protoecological studies were a major element in his research program. On the basis of empirical observations and the principles of natural philosophy, he strove to formulate theories about how animals and plants interacted with all of nature in a perfect order.

The concept of ‘the economy of nature’ was used for the first time in the 17th century, then referring most precisely to how God ruled his Creation—nature. Linnaeus gave new and richer meaning to this notion; he was responsible for a significant conceptual development of natural philosophy. Physicotheology had long been in place, but Linnaeus began to systematize the thought of ‘God’s justice in creation’.

Several of his concepts and thoughts came to develop in a secular direction in the 19th century, and it is easy to find conceptual cognitive precursors of many modern ecological terms in Linnaeus’ protoecological writings. This includes both the term ‘ecology’ itself, which Haeckel introduced to replace ‘economy of nature’ and more specific terms such as geographic distribution, cycle of nature, balance, biogeochemical cycle, nutrition chains, and niche.

Despite these similarities, modern ecology today has an entirely different understanding of the connections in nature. Its world view is different, and connections are understood on the basis of entirely different conditions. We can find both continuity and qualitative differences in the development of the sciences. What we see depends partly on what we choose to emphasize. However, what’s important is not to be too quick to dismiss earlier thinking as fantasies and speculations merely because we don’t recognize the concepts. As we saw above, there is much evidence that Linnaeus’ analogies are often based on empirical observations.

Linnaeus’ natural philosophy has often been characterized by words like “speculative,” “outmoded,” or “fantastic.” The historian of ornithology Erwin Streseman, for example, calls Linnaeus’ analogies between birds and mammals “disastrous.” As has been discussed above, some of what is dismissed in this way is based on astute observations of the connections in nature, expressed in the terms made available by the natural philosophy of the day. Several of these concepts and cognitive models came to be further elaborated in the more and more materialistically and mechanistically oriented biological science of the 19th century.

Linnaeus was one of the foremost physicotheologists, and he renewed and deepened this tradition. He helped physicotheology develop from the more naïve simplicity that characterized early natural theology into a more complex perspective in which environmental factors received more and more attention. Glacken maintains that this entailed a development in a secular direction that, to be sure, recognized the divine design but emphasized the influence of the surroundings on the ‘construction’ and distribution of plants and animals. However, I do not view this development as such as a secularization of natural history; after all, Linnaeus maintained that God works in nature. The influence of the environment was merely a further example of God’s presence in nature, a more refined proof of the existence of a divine plan for Creation.