Monday, January 11, 2010

Linnaeus as a second Adam

My assistant came into my office the other day and said, "You're reading Zygon?" I said, "Yes, and it's actually an interesting article, too!" I admit it: Zygon baffles me. Zygon bills itself as a "Journal of Religion & Science," which in theory is something that could be quite helpful. Indeed, they often have comprehensible articles on topics that I just don't care all that much about, but every 200+ page issue is usually choked with articles that come across as pretentious, postmodern blather. Maybe I'm just out of the loop, but I doubt it.

In any event, since one of our goals at CORE is to archive information related to creation/evolution and religion/science, I am a member of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, which includes a subscription to Zygon. I skim the issues and stick them on the shelf, but finally I found an article that was not only readable and interesting but also helpful! I'm still recovering from the shock.

The article in question is Peter Harrison's "Linnaeus as a second Adam? Taxonomy and the religious vocation." Harrison is author of several books you may remember: 1989's The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science and 2007's The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science. I like his new article so much because he hits on a lot of issues from my own work.

Harrison opens the article by discussing how taxonomy changed during the early modern period. He distinguishes a medieval mindset, which views creation as a set of symbols or analogues of God's attributes or moral virtues, from the early modern mindset, which saw creation as comprehensible through the application of precise mathematics or language. This shift he attributes in part to the Protestant reformation (particularly the doctrine of sola scriptura) and to the influx of new species coming from the New World, which had no symbolic traditions associated with them.

The bulk of the article discusses how natural philosophers and later what we would call taxonomists took their inspiration from Adam's naming of the animals in Genesis 2:19-20. As Thomas Sprat wrote in 1667,
This was the first service, that Adam performed to his Creator, when he obey'd him in mustring, and naming, and looking into the Nature of all the Creatures. This had bin the only religion, if men had continued innocent in Paradise, and had not wanted a redemption. (quoted in Harrison 2009)
Linnaeus himself was accused of arrogantly assuming the role of a "second Adam" in naming and organizing all the animals. Of course, this accusation came from Albrecht von Haller after Linnaeus had reduced several of von Haller's species to mere varieties, so take it with a grain of salt.

I definitely recommend this article. I think it's fascinating to see how much of the early modern mindset I have unwittingly adopted (aside from the unhealthy obsession with natural religion/theology). I'm eager to learn more.

Harrison. 2009. Linnaeus as a second Adam? Taxonomy and the religious vocation. Zygon 44(4):879-893.