The Facts on Carl Linnaeus - and Why Knowing Things Matters

Memorial Day is Monday, and while it’s an immensely important holiday in its own right -- honoring our fallen troops, marking the official beginning of summer -- it also has a special meaning to us here at na2ure. May 25th is the birthday of Carl Linnaeus, the most important man in history.

Yes, this guy: researchers at the University of Toulouse scoured 24 different languages' editions of Wikipedia to determine which person’s pages were referenced most often. The more frequently a person was referenced, the greater impact that person was determined to have. Each of those 24 Wikipedias generated a list, and when those lists were compared the folks who were mentioned most frequently in multiple languages were deemed the most influential -- and important -- in history.

The one mentioned most of all? Carl Linnaeus. Here are the lists from the top 3 most popular Wikipedia pages to prove it:

In English Wikipedia:

  1. Napoleon

  2. Barack Obama

  3. Carl Linnaeus

  4. Elizabeth II

  5. George W Bush.

In Chinese Wikipedia:

  1. Carl Linnaeus

  2. Mao Zedong

  3. Napoleon

  4. Aristotle

  5. Chiang Kai-shek.

In Russian Wikipedia:

  1. Peter the Great

  2. Carl Linnaeus

  3. Napoleon

  4. Alexander Pushkin

  5. Joseph Stalin.

While Napoleon is a bit of a surprise (how did he claim the top spot in the US??), Linnaeus seems like a mistake. An 18th century botanist who invented the scientific classification system of plants and animals we use today, his contribution to world history seems small and obscure compared to the political luminaries, world leaders, and philosophers he’s cited alongside. But, rather than consider it anomaly, we think the inclusion of Linnaeus in this list sheds an interesting light on what we humans value as a species.

Consider this modified Maslow triangle, illustrating our basic needs from most to least important:

The interesting thing about this hierarchy is that the ones on the bottom are considered the most basic. They’re the ones that need to be met in order for people to satisfy the higher level ones, which bring deeper personal satisfaction. Given the Wikipedia study, we think that Linnaeus' frequent appearance across all those different languages and cultures means that people all over the world are using his system to fulfill the same need: understanding how the world around them works. And this understanding allows them to be socially and personally fulfilled.

That’s not something we made up; that’s the whole impetus behind the Encyclopedia of Life:

Naming things is the first step to learning where they fit into the world around you. Grouping them is understanding where they do and do not fit in. Mapping them is understand how they relate to everything else in the world. This idea is the backbone of Linnaean taxonomy. Species that share certain physical characteristics are given a Latin name dependent on their characteristics, grouped together based on those shared characteristics, and mapped within taxonomic classification system that contextualizes them. This system allows scientists to accurately understand everything they see, from animals to flowers, in an organized, comprehensive way that offers context within the world. That idea transcends languages, cultures, and education… and allows us to see exactly where we fit into the global scheme of things.

It’s also an idea we’re expanding on here at na2ure.

Our Ani-gram-it and ferret games take Linnaeus’ system and flip it upside-down to make the animal kingdom colorful, fun, and accessible to everyone from 4 to 104. We let players construct animals they can already name from their physical traits. This allows players to learn grouping and mapping as they play each trait, and helps build their understanding of how animals are the same -- and not the same -- based on which traits they share.

Those games have played well so far. So well, in fact, that we’re about to release even more. Stay tuned!

To summarize, if we rearrange the previous triangle to show what humans consider most to least important, it matches up perfectly with what na2ure, EOL, and everyone else who walks in Linnaeus’ footsteps is trying to do:

According to Wikipedia, people most want to know how the world works because that’s what’s most important to them. And they absolutely can. 

Thanks to Carl Linnaeus.