“To say that humans have the anatomical structure of an omnivore is an egregiously inaccurate statement. The great taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus, (1707-1778), a Swedish naturalist and botanist who established the modern scientific method of classifying plants and animals, classified humans not as carnivores, not as omnivores, nor even as herbivores, but as frugivores. Linnaeus writes: “Man’s structure, internal and external compared with that of the other animals, shows that fruit and succulent vegetables are his natural food.”
Have you ever come across this quote? For those who support and follow a fruit based diet, it certainly seems encouraging. It is alluring to believe that there was a time in the not so distant past when this idea was more commonly held.
If you have come across this quotation, did you ever wonder if it was accurate? Do you stop to try to find where it came from?
I must admit, I have probably quoted this comment myself a few times when talking about the idea that humans should really be seen as frugivorous primates, similar to the other apes that are closest in nature to us.
Over the years, I have gradually grown more sceptical about the sources of the information I am sharing and I realised I wanted to be much more rigorous with evidence I was bringing. So I decided to see if I could find the source of this quotation.
I contacted the Linnaen Society in London.
Here is a little about the Society from it’s own website:
“The Linnean Society of London is the world’s oldest active society devoted to natural history. Founded in 1788 by Sir James Edward Smith (1759–1828), who was its first President, the Society takes its name from the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) whose botanical, zoological and library collections have been in our keeping since 1829. “
Who was Linnaeus anyway and why is he of importance to this topic?
“Carl Linnaeus (23 May 1707 – 10 January 1778), also known after his ennoblement as Carl von Linné, was a Swedish botanist, zoologist, taxonomist, and physician who formalised binomial nomenclature, the modern system of naming organisms. He is known as the “father of modern taxonomy“. “
By taxonomy we mean the classification of organisms into different categories. To this day, in botany and zoology the abbreviation L. is used to show that Linnaeus was the authority for the name of that species. He coined the phrase “homo sapiens” for humans.
If he was to have classified humans as frugivores, then this would certainly be worth taking seriously.
I contacted the society and was surprised and delighted to receive a very quick reply from Will Beharrell, a Librarian at the Linnaen Society. He replied:
“Thank you for your enquiry.
This is a bit of a knotty one, and it will probably take me a few days to follow up. I’ll try to get back to you early next week. I hope that’s alright.”
I waited patiently until receiving this reply:
“Having consulted with colleagues here at the Society and in Uppsala, Sweden, the consensus is that we’re unable to identify the source of this quotation, and so cannot safely attribute it to Carl Linnaeus.
One thing we can say fairly conclusively is that it cannot be a direct quotation. Linnaeus lived in Sweden in the 18th century, and virtually all his published and unpublished works are written in either Swedish or Latin. “
So it is not a direct quote but could it be some kind of translation?
Will went on:
“That of course leaves the possibility that the quotation is an English translation of something Linnaeus said, but here we’ve only been able to make limited progress. The main source of Linnaeus’ thinking on the subject of diet and nutrition is a manuscript, unpublished in Linnaeus’ lifetime, entitled Diaeta Naturalis. Linnaeus wrote it in 1733, when still a young man, having lately returned from a journey among the Sami people of northern Sweden where he was greatly inspired by what he saw as their healthy way of life.
In this manuscript Linnaeus makes several pronouncements on the benefit of a diet rich in fruit and vegetables which resemble this quote, but only in sentiment and not—so far as we’ve been able to ascertain—in particular phrasing. In the Diaeta, which is structured as a series of 136 maxims, Linnaeus says, variously, “Fructus homini optimum pabulum” (“Fruit is the best fodder for man”, Diaeta naturalis, ed. Arvid HJ. Uggla, Almquist, & Wiksells, 1958—p.150), and also “Cibus maxime naturalis e vegetabilibus desumitur” (“The most natural food is gathered from vegetables”, p.148), but then earlier he says “Optima esculenta sunt fructus atque carnia animalium assata vel cocta proprioque jusculo commesta” (“The best foods are fruits and animal flesh roasted in their own juices”, p.75). On that same page Linnaeus also makes reference to the teeth of “Fructivores”: “Fructivori: 6 (!) utrinqve incisores, 2 canini, plures molares, ut simia, homo“ (p.75). The last three words suggest he includes man and monkeys in this fructivorous “class“, but it’s clear from the rest of the quotation that this cannot be an exclusive or obligate diet. Generally, this idea is poorly articulated, and the manuscript—messy and in a mixture of languages—is clearly a work in progress.”
So where did this quotation come from? Here is what Will found:
“The earliest instance I’ve been able to find of the exact quotation you gave me is an online article dated 2008, “Answers about the Vegan lifestyle
in New York” by a man named Rynn Berry, a US vegetarian activist and writer of historical biographies of “famous vegetarians”. My suspicion is that Berry—assuming he didn’t just fabricate the quote—is loosely paraphrasing some of Linnaeus’ sentiments in Diaeta Naturalis (especially the maxim from page 75 reproduced above). Whether by editorial oversight, dishonesty, or the distortion of time and memory, this paraphrase has ended up in quotation marks and is now frequently adduced online as evidence of Linnaeus’ support for a vegetarian diet.
As I hope the excerpts from Diaeta make clear, this supposition is not safe: Linnaeus’ views on human diet are ambiguously—sometimes contradictorily— articulated, and the use of this manuscript to argue for his views one way or the other is problematic. “
I further asked if Linnaes had ever categorised humans into any classification such as carnivore, omnivore, frugivore etc. Will replied:
“So terms like carnivore, herbivore are descriptions of behaviour rather than taxonomic categories. Linnaeus makes references to the diets of animals in his main work of classification, Systema Naturae, but he doesn’t arrange them into groups according to diet. The reasons for this are self-evident: eagles and bears are both carnivorous, but clearly belong to different taxa; meanwhile a class like mammalia contains animals that are herbivorous, carnivorous, and everything in between.
In Diaeta Naturalis Linnaeus does seem to be toying with a dietary classification: he creates categories for “Carnivori”, “Radivori” (root-eating), “Phytivori” (plant-eating), “ruminant”, and “Fructivori” (fruit-eating, in which he places humans), but this is incredibly sketchy and the idea doesn’t seem to have been followed up (the manuscript languished unpublished for 200 years). If anything, Linnaeus seems to be making a classification based on observations of teeth and dentition as much as diet—the rest of the passage is all a description of animal teeth.”
He added one extra comment to correct this stating that:
“When I say that terms like carnivore, herbivore, etc aren’t taxonomic groups, I should make clear they weren’t taxonomic groups according to Linnaeus.”
What can we conclude from this information?
It would appear to me that the original quotation is not one that we can safely attribute to Linnaeus and those who wish to promote the idea of humans as frugivores should probably not rely on it heavily as a form of evidence.
It would seem that Linnaeus’s ideas on the subject were much less set in stone than this quotation seems to suggest.
What can we say for sure that Linnaeus said on this topic?
He certainly stated this phrase:
“Fructus homini optimum pabulum” (“Fruit is the best fodder for man”, from Diaeta naturalis)
“The most natural food is gathered from vegetables”
But followed this up with this phrase:
“Optima esculenta sunt fructus atque carnia animalium assata vel cocta proprioque jusculo commesta” (“The best foods are fruits and animal flesh roasted in their own juices”, p.75)
He may have been working on the idea of making a “fructivore” class which humans would have been added to due to our dentition but it appears that this work was not complete and remained unpublished.
It is safe to say that Carolus Linnaeus can not be seen as a clear supporter of the idea that human beings are frugivores and should eat a fruit based diet.
Rynn Berry who is the main originator of this quote passed away in 2014. I am in the process of making attempts to find out where he may have got this quote from but for now we should assume that a mistake has been made.