The relationship between God, nature, and humans was something that thoroughly occupied the minds of 18th-century scientists and philosophers. This issue was of crucial importance in the branch of thought that is usually called ‘physicotheology’ and was embraced by many natural scientists both in Sweden and abroad. The Englishman William Derham, who in 1713 published the book Physico-theology, is usually claimed to be the creator of physicotheology and its greatest exponent. In Sweden Linnaeus is usually counted among the leading representatives. He perceived nature as a wonder created by God, which is expressed, among other places, in the speech “On the Remarkableness of Insects,” which he gave at the Royal Academy of Sciences in 1739.

Scientists in the 18th century felt that
studying nature was also a way to gain
knowledge about God’s Creation.

The physicotheologists asserted that both religion and nature research were vital to humankind. Through the study of nature our knowledge of God and His Creation would be enhanced; it can therefore be said that science had a religious utility. This way of thinking was typical of Linnaeus, see Linnaeus’ view of nature. In his treatise Cui bono? (“To What Good?”), he asks what the purpose of everything is, and his answer is that everything is part of God’s grand scheme.

By this he means that God never created anything unnecessarily, that every object is an important part of Creation. The task of the naturalist is therefore to discover this purpose. In doing so, the glory of God would be made manifest and economic utility would be promoted.

Physicotheology goes together with a teleological view of the world, meaning a perspective that emphasizes the ultimate purpose of nature. Philosophers and theologians sometimes speak of the teleological proof of the existence of God, which means the belief that nature is so perfectly ordered that it could not possibly arise by chance, but must have been created by a benevolent and omnipotent God.

It could be said that many arguments propounded by modern ecologists in principle already existed in 18th-century physicotheology. This is true of the opinion that everything in nature belongs together or that all living beings are valuable in a sense.

Clarence J. Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought From Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century (1967)

Linnaeus’ view of nature

Together with scientists like John Ray, William Derhamn, and William Paley, Linnaeus is one of the great thinkers in the physicotheological tradition. Nature was a key word and a sort of model during the 18th century. Nature was likened to a book in which God had written down messages, and just as one could read the Bible, one could also read the Book of Nature. Linnaeus was probably the foremost interpreter of his time in regard to the glorious plan of Creation.

The blossom of the true-love, with stamen and pistils.
Photo R. Insulander

The concept of the ‘economy of nature’ was used for the first time in the 17th century, then denoting basically how God governed his Creation—Nature. The notion that there existed an organised principle in nature, a perfect administration that meant that nothing was wanting and nothing was superfluous became a popular way of thinking during the 18th century. In treatises like Curiositas Naturalis 1748, Oeconomia Naturae 1749 (Husbandry of Nature), and Politia Naturae 1760 (Polity of Nature) Linnaeus developed ideas in this field that point forward to an ecological view. He wrote about the cycle of nature and the importance of mulching in nature, about how organisms had their place in nature, and that everything worked together like a perfect machine.

Linnaeus’ bedroom at Hammarby. The
walls are papered with botanical plates.
Photo R. Insulander

The notion of utility was an important component of Linnaeus’ view of nature. He was of the opinion that everything in nature was ultimately created with humans in mind. Whether it was something to eat, to build a house with, or merely to admire for its beauty, it was useful and created for humans. It was also the duty of humans to examine and utilize the riches of nature. This view has prompted the American historian Daniel Worster to include Linnaeus in the tradition of an ‘imperialistic’ view of nature, in other words, a view that has led us to exploit nature too much.

Linnaeus emphasized the hierarchy of nature. There was a sharp distinction between humans and nature. At the top in nature was the human being, whose duty was to make use of nature. To Linnaeus there was no oversoul that pervaded everything created, and he was opposed to old popular notions of natural beings, elves, etc.

Against this it can be pointed out that by including humans in his Systema Naturæ, as one animal among many, he saw humans as more equal with nature. If we also add the importance Linnaeus has had even in our thinking we should care about what plants or birds are called or how they live, we have to conclude that his influence on our view of nature has been exceedingly good.

Carl von Linné, Om jämvikten i naturen ed. Broberg, Gunnar(Stockholm, 1978).
Tore Frängsmyr, ”Den gudomliga ekonomin”, Lychnos 1971-72.
Sverker Sörlin, Naturkontraktet: Om naturumgängets idéhistoria (Stockholm, 1991).
Daniel Worster, Nature´s Economy: A history of ecological ideas (Cambridge, 1977).

Faith in the Bible and Creation

Linnaeus was a fervently religious man, but that does not mean that he was orthodox in his beliefs, that is, that he followed the teachings of the church in every detail. He was rather a nature person: he viewed nature as a wonder of God; he saw the glory of the Creator in animals and plants.For a person of his time it was still natural to believe in the story of the Creation in the Bible. That tells how the earth was created and took its shape. Linnaeus saw no reason to doubt this story, but he was eager to complement it.

Adam in Paradise. Copper engraving
from J.J. Scheuchzer’s commentated
Bible production, the Kupfer Bible

If God had created all plants and animals at once, different climate types must have existed at the same time in paradise, both tropical and arctic. He therefore assumed that paradise lay on an island south of the equator and on this island there was a high mountain, thereby offering different climate types at the same time. Eventually the island grew and formed continents, thus making it possible for animals and plants to spread across the earth. When the Flood occurred, this order was interrupted; rock and earth layers changed positions; stones and animals were washed far from their place of origin.

At the same time Linnaeus felt that the Creation narrative did not tell the whole story.

All changes cannot have arisen merely as a result of the Flood. And he wrote in his notes that the earth must have a longer history than is spoken of in the Bible, but these were ideas he was reluctant to put forward in public. He interpreted the Fall of Man itself in a highly symbolic way in sexual terms, but he kept that to himself as well. In his medical lectures Diaeta naturalis (1733) he nevertheless has the forbidden fruit correspond to Adam’s testicles, and the snake stands for his penis, while he interprets the Bible’s phrase that the fruit was sweet to eat as denoting intercourse itself.

Tore Frängsmyr, 1969. Geologi och skapelsetro.
Elis Malmeström, 1926. Carl von Linnés religiösa åskådning.

Animal rights in the 18th century

The white-backed woodpecker
is threatened with extinction in
Sweden. What rights does it have?
Image from Rudbeck, 
Fogelbok (Bird Book).

The 18th century saw a rise in the sensitivity to and respect for animals as living creatures. People loved to mirror themselves in the animal world, and the fable was extremely popular. The upper crust displayed a love of animals, with numerous portraits of a beloved horse or dog, and love poems to parrots, finches, and lapdogs were common.

Among farmers the relationship was no doubt crasser, dominated by the utility of the animal. But the primeval tradition of giving cattle individual names also testifies to a more personal relationship with animals. Out on his country property at Hammarby, Linnaeus had given his cows original names like Summer-Rose, Fair-Cheek, Star-Rose, Lily, and Blossom.

The philosopher Descartes had been of the opinion that animals were soulless automatons. This conflicted with long-held notions and general experience, but the concept rang true to some naturalists. Olof Rudbeck and other scientists experimented on living dogs and cats.

”No Swedish monster animals”
Newpaper headline from the
debate about genetic
manipulation of animals.

One of those in Scandinavia to go the farthest in giving animals their rights was the Dane Laurids Smith (1754–1794). He was a philosopher, clergyman, and author, and even though he attracted a lot of attention during his lifetime for his original ideas, he has long been a forgotten thinker. Nowadays his main work from 1791, Attempted Systematic Treatise on the Obligations of Humans toward Animals, stands out as highly topical.

The book testifies to a great respect for animals and represents an attempt to create an understanding for their humane treatment, two hundred years before our contemporary debate about animal transports and genetically manipulated super-steers.

Laurids Smith believed that God had endowed both humans and animals with the right to enjoy life in their own manner. “Both animals and humans actually and immediately exist to enjoy happiness through their existence, and anyone who willfully and without necessity and higher purpose disturbs, destroys, and obliterates the happiness of humans or animals violates the right to enjoy bliss given by God to every living thing.” He expands the commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself” to embrace animals as well. “It is thus likewise our direct covenant to do what is right by animals, just as it is our duty to do what is right by our fellow human beings.”

However, this does not mean that we cannot eat animals or use them as beasts of burden and the like. According to Laurids Smith, it can be concluded that animals can serve as food for humans since our stomachs are designed to digest meat.

What matters is how we consume meat, whether meat is really needed or is simply a luxury. “It’s different to exploit animals beyond our basic needs for food and other uses, wasting and abusing them for show and gluttony.”

The stewardship of animals, according to Laurids Smith, entails extra responsibility for humans since they have deprived animals of their freedom. This makes it especially vital that animals be kept well, that is, that we provide good barns and good fodder.

Midbøe, Hans, "Laurids Smith" i Det Konglige Norske Videnselskabers Selskabs Forhandlingar, bd. 40 1967.
Thomas, Keith, Människan och Naturen (Stockholm, 1988). Smith, Laurids, Försök till en systematisk afhandling om menniskans pligter emot djuren (Sv. översättning Stockholm, 1799).
Sörlin, Sverker, Naturkontraktet: Om naturumgängets idéhistoria (Stockholm, 1991).

Last modified: 2022-03-08