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Jerome Christenson: They’re coming to take him away…aha!

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Jerome Christenson

Jerome Christenson

“The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” — William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”

I wonder if Aristotle is next.

He got a lot of stuff wrong too.

The pervasive purge of ex post facto evil on college campuses has claimed another victim. The name of Carolus Linnaeus, the 18th-century Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician who came up with the system we still use to sort out relationships between living organisms — a feat that earned him the sobriquet “Father of Taxonomy” — has been stripped from the Gustavus Adolphus College Arboretum in St. Peter for thought crimes committed nearly 300 years ago.

Y’see, Carlus was into sorting things — sorting living things out into plants and animals, vertebrates and invertebrates, and so on — dividing things up according to where they lived, what they did, what they looked like and such. When his sorting worked its way down to — or up to — humans he took note that people native to Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas looked and behaved differently from each other and might represent different species — like as wolves and dogs or house cats and lynx.

Three hundred years later that’s run him afoul of the contemporary thought police. Using the contemporary Malleus Maleficarum which condemns anyone, anywhere, who at any time entertained a thought or wrote, spoke or gave consideration to anything that carries so much as a whiff of ideas or language now determined to be offensive for whatever reason, poor old Carlus has been cast into the outer darkness for being mistaken about human evolution.

That his thinking predated Darwin by a century and DNA analysis by three is no excuse. His theory is — by 2021 standards — racist and Carlus Linnaeus, regardless of his long recognized contribution to scientific understanding, must be banished and dishonored lest somebody’s feelings get hurt.

This is not just stupid, it is seriously wrongheaded thinking.

Yes, Linnaeus’ theory was wrong, but it was based on investigation, observation and the best information he had available. It described the world as he saw and understood it. In the intervening centuries, other researchers have shown him to be wrong. That’s how science works.

If his 300-year-old conclusions are unpalatable to us today it is because they are now demonstrably in error and anyone who holds and professes them may well be considered, at the least, willfully ignorant. But old Carlus was long in his grave before contrary evidence was convincingly presented. We’ll never know if, had he lived to rival Methuselah, he would have changed his mind. We can say his theory was wrong, but to condemn him for 21st century sins he never had the opportunity to commit is both wrong and wrongheaded.

But of late, that’s become standard practice on campus. The University of Wisconsin spent $50,000 moving a big rock off campus because some folks were miffed by the fact that a century ago it had been referred to by what was then a common, colloquial appellation now held to be the unspeakable, ultimate racial epithet (unless, of course, you’re Dave Chappelle). And right here, Winona State University officialdom has determined that the Depression Era WPA murals at the entrance of Somsen Hall are just too much for the sensibilities and understanding of contemporary young people to tolerate and comprehend. Fragile minds are protected from the historically significant art by blank, beige canvas barricades, satisfying the misguided impulse to force the past to comply with the understandings of the present.

Aristotle thought slavery was a fine thing. He taught that women were inferior to men, that they even had fewer teeth. Not only that, he was all wrong about eels …

He lived 2,400 years ago.

I suppose that’s no excuse.


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