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Linné on line arrow Linnaeus and Ecology arrow Linnaeus and the ideas of ecology arrow The development of protoecology in Sweden

The development of protoecology in Sweden

“Hardly could we in Sweden and Finland treat our valuable forests with more hostility than is happening here: they look only to immediate profits, and never even dream about the future.” From Per Kalm’s depiction of America in 1748.

The idea of the economy of nature was taken up by Linnaeus’ disciples in Sweden only to a very limited extent. The Linnaean tradition here came to be dominated by species description, systematics, and a highly comprehensive mapping of Sweden’s flora and fauna. Why this was the case deserves close attention from the point of view of the history of science. The fact that so little further research was done about the economy of nature probably has several explanations, and only a few can be mentioned here. Linnaeus had laid down rules and shown how nature could be systematized, paving the way for a time-consuming effort to put together the pieces of a puzzle. Using the terminology of the historian of science Kuhn, we can say that there ensued a period of ‘normal’ science. Both the first and second generations of Linneans were fully occupied with charting the flora and fauna of Sweden and the world, seeking the more general connections, and the laws of nature fell by the wayside.

Even though Linnaeus’ protoecological ideas, mentioned above, fell on fallow ground above all in England and were further elaborated there, there were at least a couple of Swedes who carried on this aspect of the Linnaean legacy. Both of them rank among the foremost of Linnaeus’ disciples: Per Kalm and Samuel Ödmann.

In Per Kalm’s travelogues from America we find several astute protoecological observations, especially regarding the impact of humans on nature. He describes how forests are cut down, how birds are made extinct, and how drainage ditches are changing the climate. Kalm contrasts the greed of Europeans with the compliant way of living among the Indians, just as Linnaeus had depicted the Sami of Lapland as a people who live in harmony with nature.

Kalm calls the farming of the pioneers worthless. They cut down the forest and cleared for cultivation, taking advantage of the black soil that had been building up for hundreds of years. But after a few harvests, when the soil was exhausted, and the yields grew smaller and smaller, they abandoned the field and cleared a new one. With knowledge of natural history, a more sustainable form of agriculture could be achieved, according to Kalm, but “I found everywhere the wisdom and goodness of the Great Creator, but too much knowledge and understanding was lacking to properly evaluate and make use of it.”

In his youth Samuel Ödmann was a prominent natural scientist, specializing in birds of the archipelago. He published a number of careful studies of the habits of the long-tailed duck, the eider, and the velvet scoter in the proceedings of the Royal Academy of Science. These small monographs far exceeded the species descriptions typical of the time, and, in their detailed description of the birds’ living conditions, they constitute examples of early bird ecology.

In his initiation address to the Royal Academy of Science, he depicted the grand contexts of nature, in the spirit of Linnaeus, but he hardly contributed anything new on the level of theory. In one of his hymns he also took up the theme of the grand scheme of Creation: “He who holds the chain of things, Looks with grace upon each link.”