Linnaeus's "Natural Economy"

Central to 18th-century naturalists' vision of nature's balance and benevolence was the notion of an "economy of nature," which placed all the complex and disturbing operations of the natural world nicely into a Providential design. These views emerged from scientific ideas of a rational, law-like, balanced nature. Individuals, as members of species with particular roles, had traits fitting them to a purpose in the maintenance of world order. The order itself was preordained in the original design of the world, and its laws. Ecological balance was thus deeply connected to a cultural vision of order, blending the well-being of the individual, the species, and the whole world.
Linnaeus provided this vision of orderliness in two widely disseminated theses, Oeconomia naturae and Politia naturae, describing nature as a balanced, harmonious equilibrium. "By the economy of nature," Linnaeus opened his thesis, "we understand the all-wise disposition of the Creator in relation to natural things, by which they are fitted to produce general ends and reciprocal uses." Divine guidance had caused a universal cycle of "propagation, preservation, and destruction" in order to maintain the "established course of nature." The continuity of the cycle served to stress the unchanging nature of the world. All characteristics of species exist to fulfill the purpose of harmony and rational order. The three elements of the cycle meant that the effort to reproduce would be constant, that all things would contribute to preserve every species, and that the death of one organism would always be "subservient to the restitution of another."

The control of equilibrium necessitated a notion of the struggle for existence, to be reconciled with the goodness of nature. That reconciliation was effected, of course, through the ultimate purpose of nature for human benefit. Linnaeus concluded that in

"an order of nature, that some animals should be, as it were, created only to be miserably butchered by others, it seems that his Providence not only aimed at sustaining, but also keeping a just proportion amongst all the species; and so prevent any one of them increasing too much, to the detriment of men, and other animals. For if it be true, as it is most assuredly, that the surface of the earth can support only a certain number of inhabitants, they must all perish, if the same number were doubled or tripled."

The very survival of nature's order became dependent as much on the destruction, that is, the preying of one on another, as on the harmonious contributions of preserving or protecting traits. The paradox, that the good of nature's order and balance arises out of all this conflict and destruction, vanished in the comparison of nature to a hierarchy in which all have an appointed station and task. In nature all things do their function, contributing to the higher order. Equally, there are constraints on any detrimental excesses. The laws of nature, in this view, preserve both the existence and proportions of species, and they preserve both as they were fixed at the Creation.


Quotations from Carolus Linnaeus, 1775, The Economy of Nature, [Transl. of Oeconomia naturae], London: Benjamin Stillingfleet, p. 40. The two theses were published in 1751 and 1761; English translations appeared quickly, most notable of which was this one produced by the natural history translator and publisher Benjamin Stillingfleet, in 1775. It is the one read by Darwin.