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History of Political Economy Annual Supplement to Volume 35 (2003) 173-203
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Underwriting the Oeconomy:
Linnaeus on Nature and Mind
In its full brittle complexity, nature today exists only on our sufferance. Around us and in our company relatively few life-forms thrive: our hybrid crops and infantilized companions such as the domestic dog, our parasites and microbes, the tramp flora invading the soils we ravage, and those generalist omnivores living from our refuse, such as houseflies, cockroaches, crows, pigs, and rats. The key distinction between our nature, which is to say modernity's nature, and the nature of the eighteenth-century enlightened improvers, is nicely captured by how we today describe those small fragments remaining as pristine ecosystems—our "refuges," "wildlife corridors," "reserves," "sanctuaries," "parks," and "set-asides."
These terms hark back to our self-image as stewards and guardians, and to the earth as our garden, as well as to medieval legal terminology of outlaws. A "sanctuary" was originally a place, usually a church, where criminals were safe from the law. So is a "refuge." And the Massachusetts Audubon Society defines their "set-asides" as places "without permanent improvements," even as the very existence of these places fundamentally questions that notion of improvement. As one writer of the deep-ecology movement, Bill McCormick, has put it, nature is now dead—not as a natural fact, but phenomenologically, as an entity existing independently of us.
Historians sometimes write of a specifically Western dysfunctional relation to nature (typically contrasted with non-Western peoples' supposedly custodial guardianship). This story is written in Freudian terms, as a repetition-compulsion. The Fall is acted out as people assert in [End Page 173] action the power over nature that God granted them in Genesis. In this account, the story of the Fall is what constitutes the Fall.
I argue in this article that Christian theologies addressing nature (its constitution and its relation to humans) are more complex and varied. I have chosen one example: the natural theology of the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707–78) and his students. Linnaeus and his followers, I argue, regarded nature as a benign and self-regulating superorganism, cyclically self-replicating its own perfection through "policing" mechanisms such as—if I may be permitted to use problematically modern terms—hydraulic cycles, successor plant communities, and predator-prey relations.
This is why, of course, some historians have dubbed Linnaeus the father of ecology, together with English naturalist parsons such as John Ray (1628–1705) and Gilbert White (1720–93). As I have argued in earlier publications, however, Linnaeus himself stands outside that more general reception of his thought, whereby Adam Smith imports the cybernetic concepts governing Linnaeus's natural theology into his own economics of the "invisible hand," and Charles Darwin in turn reimports Smithian conceptions of the economy and its autoregulatory features into the realm of nature (Koerner 1999). But Linnaeus did regard humankind as an integral part of his finely balanced nature (and as the worshipful mediator to its ultimate creator, God). In turn, this theology—which involved a far-reaching naturalization of humanity—underwrote Linnaeus's economics.
To help the uninitiated reader, I first sketch the practice and institutes of the Linnaean science of "oeconomy." In the bulk of the article, however, I address its theoretical constructs, analyzing how Linnaeus and his students conceptualized—by way of their natural theology—the relation between nature and economics. I pay particular attention to how their intertwining involved a claim to universality, of both nature and mind. That claim in turn resulted in an intriguing if not rigorously elaborated epistemology of cross-cultural knowledge formation, which looped back into, and ultimately depended on, Linnaean natural theology. The article concludes that Linnaeus's mind mirrored the nature he constructed not only in terms of his concepts of the naturalized human mind, but also in terms of the cycles and interdependence of its epistemologies.
"This era, when Sweden's age-old joy in battles and fighting games was tempted to turn instead in earnest to peaceful heroics...