During the eighteenth century, reproduction and associated processes such as heredity and evolution moved to the centre of a new science of life. The large literature on these intellectual and cultural changes concentrates on the zoological and anthropological writings of scholars including Pierre Louis de Maupertuis, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Immanuel Kant, Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Yet plants also held a place in eighteenth-century thought, notably the doctrine of physiocracy, which identified agriculture as the source of wealth Economic historians have demonstrated how the exchange of staple foods such as wheat and potatoes between the New World and the Old facilitated the rise of capitalism. Botanical gardens, in Europe and overseas, served as hubs for this global exchange, and the botanists in charge played a significant role in the propagation of Enlightenment ideas of improvement and progress.
One botanist has been much recognized for his contributions to Enlightenment discourses of generation, propagation and the production of wealth: the Swedish naturalist and physician Carl Linnaeus (1707–78). In 1735, while staying in Holland to complete his medical studies, Linnaeus authored the Systema naturae (System of nature), which proposed to classify plants according to the number and arrangement of their ‘male’ and ‘female’ generative organs (stamens and pistils). This ‘sexual system’ made the 28-year-old medical student famous and founded a career as Europe's leading botanical authority. According to Londa Schiebinger, the sexual system resonated with eighteenth-century audiences because Linnaeus ‘brought traditional notions of gender hierarchy whole cloth into science’. Most importantly, she claims, the sexual system emphasized heterosexual marriage, and thus excluded homosexuality, for example. More recent work has complicated this picture. Ann Shteir found that sexualized botanical representations mattered to eighteenth- century audiences as ‘boundaries to be disputed’. This chimes with the observation by earlier historians that the sexual system challenged the long-held conviction that plants did not propagate sexually at all since they lacked the capacity of animals to sense and move.
This chapter uses the case of Linnaeus to reveal some deeper levels of eighteenth- century discourses on sexuality and reproduction. I first take a fresh look at the sexual system, revealing references to behaviours that most eighteenth-century readers perceived as deviant. Sexuality, the subversive message went, was universal and produced a cornucopia of life forms.