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Sweden Honors Linneaus, 'Father of Modern Taxonomy'

Celebrations this week in Sweden marked the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl Linnaeus, the 18th-century Swedish scientist known as the father of taxonomy. On Saturday, the University of Uppsala, Linneaus's alma mater, awarded honorary doctorates in his name to prominent scientists, including primatologist Jane Goodall, who has spent decades studying chimpanzee social behavior in Africa. Kevin Billinghurst has more from Sweden.

The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said there is "no greater man on earth." The German writer Goethe compared him to Shakespeare and Spinoza. The Swedish author and playwright Strindberg described him as a poet who happened to become a naturalist.

Carl Linnaeus, born May 23, 1707, was a physician, a fluent linguist, an ethnologist before there was such a term and an amateur ecologist.

But he is best known to history as a botanist, having invented the modern system of taxonomy, which gives each plant and animal a double name in Latin. It was Linnaeus who coined the term Homo sapiens, or man the rational, a species that he classified among primates.

As revolutionary as was that pre-Darwin, pre-DNA leap, based solely on observation of physical characteristics, Linnaeus was most lauded for his life's work classifying thousands of plants and animals in his now familiar binomial system.

The week-long Swedish celebration of Linnaeus's 300th birthday included a visit this week by Japanese Emperor Akahito, himself an avid botanist, and on Saturday Uppsala University awarded honorary doctorates to a constellation of prominent scientists and public figures honored for their contributions to understanding and protecting nature, including the British primatologist Jane Goodall, whose achievements in groundbreaking studies of chimpanzee social and family life include debunking the earlier conventional wisdom that only humans make tools.

Following a well-attended lecture upon acceptance of her degree, Goodall explained why Linnaeus remains so important to modern science.

"I think that really, the importance of Linnaeus is the way he grasped the similarities in structure between so many different organisms and laid them out in a way that's still useful today, said Goodall. "I find it quite extraordinary that someone would know enough all those years ago."

Goodall said that Linnaeus, by classifying humans and primates together, laid the groundwork for efforts by herself and many others to understand the great apes and protect their habitats from encroaching civilization and environmental destruction.

"I think that that shows that, even from a superficial look at the anatomy and so forth, it's very clear that we are part of the family of great apes," she said. "What I find so amazing is how long it's taken science to admit -- and even now not all scientists do admit -- that there are also these similarities in behavior, in emotions, in intellectual performance."

Other recipients of of honorary doctorates from Uppsala University in commemoration of Linnaeus include the documentary filmmaker David Attenborough, the co-discoverer of the DNA molecule James Watson, and former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.