Classifying Chaos: Observation, Ecology and Reproductive Mechanisms in Otto Friedrich Müller's Small-Scale Natural History, 1760-1784

Name of applicant

Christoffer Basse Eriksen


Postdoctoral Fellow


Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin


DKK 1,275,492



Type of grant

Reintegration Fellowships


During the last half of the eighteenth century, the Danish naturalist Otto Friedrich Müller published a string of treatises on some of the more obscure parts of nature: Puss moths, boletes, ragworms, and infusoria. Common for these fungi, insects, and protozoa was that they did not seem to reproduce sexually. On this ground, Carolus Linnaeus had relegated them to the fringe of his influential system of classification. This project shows, however, that observations of the reproductive mechanisms and ecological interactions of such peripheral beings were crucial to the emergence of a modern science of life. By bringing together Müller’s observations, the project argues for the importance of microbiology in the age of classification.


In order to react thoughtfully to the current biodiversity crisis, it is incredibly important that we sharpen our understanding of ecosystems, symbiosis, and co-existence. My project shows that these notions were indeed developed within a Danish context of observational natural history already in the late eighteenth century. It also shows that exploration of co-species interdependence was not carried out for conservationist reasons, but rather to heighten a sense of man’s mastery of nature. The project traces these complex purposes and ambitions within the state-sponsored project of mapping all Danish vegetable resources, the Flora Danica, of which Müller was editor for eight years.


Although Müller is recognized for his efforts as editor of the Flora Danica as well as for his pioneering descriptions of protozoa, he is yet to be thoroughly examined from a science-historical perspective. This project seeks to remedy this through close archival research on his manuscripts, letters, notes, and account books kept in Danish libraries and archives. I will move from Berlin to Aarhus in order to be close to the source materials, and to build collaborations with librarians, archivists, and scholars who are familiar with the sources. In addition, I will develop the methodological concept of ’small-scale natural history’ to be better able to grasp the connections between Müller’s seemingly disparate observations of obscure natural bodies.

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