Uppsala universitet
Skip links
På svenska

Linné on line arrow Linnaeus and Ecology arrow The ascent of ecology in Sweden arrow New impulses from Germany

New impulses from Germany

Earlier we saw how Darwin’s theory of evolution provided important inspiration for the emergence of ecology. More concretely, we can say that one component of his theory, the theory of descent—meaning that different present-day species have developed from earlier, now extinct, species—inspired phylogenetic studies. This means that scientists researched the evolutionary history of organisms, a goal for both comparative anatomy and studies of plant and animal geography. Through comparative anatomical studies researchers attempted to reconstruct the evolutionary history of various animal groups. Haeckel’s idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny also gave impetus to both comparative anatomy and embryonal studies to map the evolutionary history of different species. The other component of Darwin’s theory—natural selection, the struggle for existence—triggered renewed studies of how organisms adapt to their environment—morphological, physiological, and behavioral adaptations, for instance.

It is usually said that Darwinism was born in England but found its home in Germany, where above all the theory of descent was privileged at the expense of thinking about natural selection. Germany was also the source of key impulses for a new kind of biology and a more experimentally oriented ecology. In Stockholm the new biology found a proponent named Vilhelm Leche, who had German parents and had studied in Germany. He was an advocate of Comte’s positivism and maintained that religion should be completely replaced by scientific thinking. The Stockholm Labor Institute, which Leche was a member of, was the hub for Comte’s positivism and anti-religious propaganda during the 1880s and 1890s. Leche was not alone in making this coupling; in Sweden the new biology was represented primarily by scientists who also were politically radical.

In Uppsala the new biology did not make such an impact. During the 1860s and 1870s Uppsala was a center for Linnaean faunistics; Vilhelm Lilljeborg’s magnificent Skandinaviska fauna (Scandinavian Fauna) was the culmination of the Linnaean descriptive tradition. But Tycho Tullberg, a student of Lilljeborg, soon turned away phylogenic studies and became the foremost advocate of Darwinism and the new biology. He organized a discussion group for comparative anatomy, and by 1876 he had equipped a small anatomical loboratory, probably the first of its kind in the Nordic countries

At Lund University, F.W.C. Areschoug came to introduce the new thinking in botany, and his work led to the establishment of a school of plant anatomy at Lund toward the end of the 19th century. One of his students was Bengt Lidforss, one of Sweden’s best-known politically radical scientists ever. He was a Social Democrat, a Darwinist, and an experimental physiologist, and, just like Leche in Stockholm, he is an example of the close connection between the new biology and the emergence of modernism in Sweden.

You can say that natural history was socially rooted in the old class society and was associated with its values and world view. When society was transformed during the 19th century, the conditions changed for science, but so did science itself. The Linnaean tradition of natural history lived on but had lost its dominance; around the turn of the 20th century the new biology had established its hegemony. The new biology was viewed with skepticism by the traditionalists. Gustaf Kolthoff, the creator of the biological museum in Uppsala is said to have uttered: “They place worms in wax and cut them into thin slices, and they call it science, when there is so much more to be learned about birds.”