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2009-04-05 - 10:33 p.m.

a tangent i don't want to lose

By the mid-17th century, there was well-established an interest in the literal truth of the bible as opposed to its allegorical meaning – I guess related to the intellectual climate of Renaissance humanism? – and of course Noah’s ark was a sticky point. So there were multiple attempts to describe how the ark could have been constructed to hold every known species of animal – there’s a famous one by Kircher, whose myriad contributions to science also include a plan for a horrifying device called a cat piano – which seemed somewhat plausible when there were only like 300 animal species known to natural philosophers. But overland trade and exploratory sea voyages were bringing back accounts and specimens of lots and lots of new species, and such descriptions of the ark fell out of favor. People either became convinced that the story of the ark could not be literally true, or else they were all like, the ark had to have accommodated every animal in existence or else they wouldn’t exist, so there. It’s in this climate that you see the first writings about biogeography, when people are attempting to explain how every animal in the world could have dispersed from the landing place of the ark to wherever they live today, and simultaneously critically examining the literal truth of the story.

Even after the idea of every animal species on a literal ark bobbing around was largely fallen out of favor, the concept of a worldwide flood remained something that needed explanation. In his Dissertation II: On the Increase of the Habitable Earth, Linnaeus suggested that observed elevational differences in climate and biota could motivate a synthesis of the Biblical account of creation with that of a primeval flood. If there had been a Paradisical Mountain located near the equator, different climate zones would have been sequentially revealed as the floodwaters receded. Each pair of animals could then be created in the zone corresponding to their habitat, along with all the other plants and animals suited to that habitat. Then all the plants and animals must have migrated from the Paradisical Mountain to their observed locations. But he also notes that there are not continuous tracts of habitat suitable for the migration of, say, alpine species, from the Paradisical Mountain to their current mountains, and that this “furnishes very strong objections against this hypothesis.”

Now, the story is usually presented with Linnaeus being all like, “I actually believe in this incredibly stupid and implausible Paradisical Mountain. And moreover, this Paradisical Mountain was probably Mt. Ararat in Armenia, because I am unable to question the Abrahamic tradition associating the mountains of Ararat, where the bible tells me that Noah’s ark landed, with this actual place.” And then Buffon comes along and is all like, “But wait! There do not exist unbroken tracts of habitable environments from Mt. Ararat to everywhere else in the world!” Or rather, “Pas du tout! Là n'existent pas les régions ininterrompues des environnements habitables de Mt. Ararat à chaque autre endroit dans le monde!” And we in the modern audience get to feel superior to stupid Linnaeus and his stupid belief in special creation.

But Buffon actually published his Histoire Naturelle before Linnaeus published the Dissertation II, so the chronology doesn’t work. And the Dissertation II, Linnaeus only mentions Mount Ararat in reference to Tournefort’s Relation d'un voyage du Levant, in which Tournefort makes observations about elevational gradients on Mt. Ararat in the context of his plant-collecting expedition. Likewise cited is Tournefort’s Histoire des plantes qui naissent aux environs de Paris, but nobody suggests that Linnaeus believed that the Paradisical Mountain was in the French Alps, because that doesn’t fit with the story of a progression from literal belief in the bible to modern scientific thought. In fact, Linnaeus is making an astute logical argument, albeit one that seems naïve in retrospect.

So (1) I don’t think Adam and Eve were ever sited by Linnaeus on his Paradisical Mountain, and since I am not sure how pervasive this idea of telescoping the account of creation into the Deluge was in 17th century thought, if anyone else ever located them there – were they ever made part of the story of nascent biogeographic thinking? and (2) I think Linnaeus is often misportrayed in order to tell a better story, both here and in his capacity as a taxonomist, because of his belief in special creation. Buffon also professed a belief in special creation but is generally not tarred with the same brush – authors in this and the last century are inclined to say that this is because he believed in the mutability of species, but Linnaeus also became convinced of the mutability of species but not of genera due to an interest in plant breeding.

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reading: things for work.
listening to: digital audio of fast mcmc for parameter estimation.
working on: meeting this deadline.


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