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Names and Numbers: “Data” in Classical Natural History, 1758–1859

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the transition from natural history to the history of nature. This essay analyzes institutional, social, and technological changes in natural history associated with this epochal change. Focusing on the many posthumous reeditions of Carl Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae that began to appear throughout Europe and beyond from the 1760s onward, I will argue that Linnaean nomenclature and classification reorganized and enhanced flows of data—a term already used in natural history—among individual naturalists and institutions. Plant and animal species became units that could be “slotted” into collections and publications, reshuffled and exchanged, kept track of in lists and catalogs, and counted and distributed in new ways. On two fronts—biogeography and the search for the “natural system”—this brought to the fore new, intriguing relationships among organisms of diverse kinds. By letting nature speak through the “artificial” means and media of early systematics, I argue, new and powerful visions of an unruly nature emerged that became the object of early evolutionary theories. Natural history was an “information science” that processed growing quantities of data and held the same potential for surprising insights as today’s data-intensive sciences.