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This item was published in the "Editor's File" in
The Textbook Letter, September-October 1997.

Fonius Balonius

William J. Bennetta

The bogus "history" keeps coming. Here is a passage from the high-school book Addison-Wesley Biology:

Finally, in the mid-1700s, Swedish biologist Carl von Linné established a simple system for classifying and naming organisms. His system, with some changes, is still being used today.

Linné established a system of groups called taxa (singular, taxon). Each taxon is a category into which related organisms are placed. For example, each species is a taxon. Linné used Latin for the names of taxa, . . . . Linné was so enthusiastic about his new system that he changed his own name to a Latin version. Carl von Linné has gone down in history as Carolus Linnaeus (lih-NAY-us), the father of modern taxonomy.

Now here is the truth: By the time when Linné promulgated his new system, educated Europeans had already been Latinizing their names for centuries. (Recall, for example, that Mikolaj Kopernik (1473-1543) had called himself Nicolaus Copernicus.) In Linné's own land, two kings had ruled under the name Gustavus instead of Gustaf -- and throughout northern Europe, Latinate names had become so popular among Lutheran clergymen that nearly every church had its Carolus, Engelbertus, Wilhelmus or Jacobus.

If one were to believe the tale told in Addison-Wesley Biology, one would have to imagine that all those people had shared -- in advance, through some sort of magical precognition -- Linné's enthusiasm for names ending in -us. Addison-Wesley's tale is nonsense, though, and merits no heed. Linné called himself Linnaeus not because he was "so enthusiastic about his new system" but because he was an educated man who followed the scholarly customs of his day: He wrote his learned works in Latin (Systema Naturae appeared in 1735), and he adopted a Latinate name.

Addison-Wesley Biology has other bits of fake "history" as well, some so silly that they rival the stuff about Linnaeus. One of my favorites is the illustration which shows an old, torn, yellowed page bearing a message that purportedly was written by the Roman poet Virgil. The message is in English.


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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