What do President Obama, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, an 18th-century genius, and a scientist from the Garden State have in common? A dedicated passion and respect for the humanity of science and a link to a beautiful language that is a critical part of understanding the diversity of our world.
This year marks the 250th anniversary of the publication of Carolus Linnaeus’s landmark Systema Naturae; release of the tenth edition of that work; and the publication of Letters to Linnaeus (Linnean Society of London), which pays unique tribute to Linnaeus by revealing the human side of science. Editors Sandra Knapp (Natural History Museum, London) and Quentin Wheeler (Arizona State University) asked a select group of scientists, authors, and some taxonomists, to write a letter to Linnaeus describing his impact on natural science today in light of his contribution of an expressive, informative language with which to share observations and knowledge of the world’s species. Among the more than 60 letters included in the collection is one from Dr. Gerry Moore, director of Science at Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG).
Gerry Moore, PhD, joined BBG as a taxonomist in 2000 and today, as director of Science, oversees the herbarium, horticultural taxonomy, molecular laboratory, and the New York Metropolitan Flora Project (NYMF), the first flora study of the New York Metropolitan region undertaken in almost 100 years and by far the most comprehensive.
Letters to Linnaeus is arranged in alphabetical order by contributor. Moore’s letter—between the formal missives of Allessandro Minelli (a zoologist from the Universita in Padua, Italy) and Gareth Nelson (an ichthyologist from the University of Melbourne, Australia)—fairly leaps out at the reader with an enthusiastic “Summer greetings from New Jersey!” One can be forgiven for thinking they were reading a postcard from the Jersey shore—or an album cover from Bruce Springsteen’s latest release! Not surprisingly for a taxonomist, Moore’s introduction lists the plants and their pollinators, as well as other animals, including birds and reptiles he sees when looking at his yard in the Garden State. He immediately establishes Linnaeus’s influence on all that he views—their very names were coined by that pioneering taxonomist. Moore also considers how utterly remarkable this is in light of the fact that Linnaeus never visited North America.
Moore’s letter informs Linnaeus that sadly, many of the species in the New York Metropolitan area, such as the butterfly pea and water lobelia, no longer exist here due to habitat loss and alteration. Yet he reassures him that many of the species “remain quite common,” including New York asters. He also shares in the fact that some of species common here were originally from the Old World and are now displacing our native species.
BBG’s Moore also informs Linnaeus that the artificial sexual system of plant classification he first advanced has been abandoned but that the natural system he advocated and predicted would be developed is in use today, as is the rank-based system of naming. Moore praises the elegant utility of Linnaeus’s language, and reports that “every generation” has attempted to replace the simple system of naming, but all have failed to best the “preference to communicate in names and the order that the ranks provide.”
Calling Linnaeus’s lasting innovation of binomial nomenclature—the practice of attaching an adjectival epithet to a generic noun—“revolutionary,” he also notes that the polynomials (two or more names) were too long and cumbersome and uninomials (one-word names) inadequate to accommodate the millions of species we now know of, wryly saying, “Your estimates of species numbers were seriously off, the tropics proving a lot more diverse than Lapland.” (Linnaeus predicted that there were approximately 10,000 species on earth. In fact, it is believed that there are more than 10 million, only about 10 percent of which we know about.)
Moore goes on to showcase some of Linnaeus’s innovations that have transcended science and entered popular culture, including the symbols for male ? and female ? and reversing the 100? and 0? designations on the Celsius scale so that 100? is boiling instead of freezing!
Moore’s letter concludes as enthusiastically as it began. He extols Linnaeus’s “excellent system” for “naming the Earth’s biodiversity and a wonderful head start with all of the descriptions of species” and assures him that the adventure continues, saying hopefully that someday all the organisms on earth will be named–like those in his yard!
In addition to his directorial position at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Gerry Moore is a coeditor of BBG’s e-journal Urban Habitats and serves as the Garden’s conservation officer for the Center for Plant Conservation. He is a former nomenclature coeditor for Taxon and the journal of the International Association of Plant Taxonomists and is current editor-in-chief of Bartonia, the journal of the Philadelphia Botanical Club. He is also a former member of the Committee for Vascular Plants, an international 16-member body charged with overseeing the nomenclature of vascular plants. Dr. Moore serves as an adjunct faculty member at Rutgers University, the Pratt Institute, and Saint Francis College, where he has taught botany courses.
In addition to conducting research on the local flora of the New York metropolitan region, Dr. Moore studies the taxonomy of beaked rushes (Rhynchospora), of the sedge family. He also is interested in the general theory and philosophy of plant taxonomy and nomenclature and has published numerous articles on these and other topics.
The book, Letters to Linnaeus, is available from Amazon, book stores, and will be available in the BBG Shop at the beginning of April at http://tinyurl.com/c4y8qb.