Racism: Blame it on Linnaeus

LinnaeusIn my last post I mentioned that human beings are 99.9 percent the same, genetically. So where did we get the idea that the .01 percent that makes us different also makes us better, or worse, than our fellow humans?

In a paper called “‘Scientific Racism’ in Enlightened Europe,” Shah Aashna Hossain claims that “the concept of racism did not always exist.” He writes:

In General System of Nature, published in 1735, [Swedish biologist Carl] Linnaeus stated that variations within the Genus Homo sapiens existed as a result of varying cultures and climates. The four main categories of the Genus that he proposed were the following:

1. Americanus. Native American males were supposedly red; had black hair and sparse beards; were stubborn; prone to anger; “free”; and governed by traditions. Thus, this form of Homo sapiens was definitely inferior and uncivilized.

2. Asiaticus. The male Asian was said to be “yellowish, melancholy, endowed with black hair and brown eyes…severe, conceited, and stingy. He puts on loose clothing. He is governed by opinion.” Thus, like the aforementioned type of Homo sapiens, the Asiaticus could only be a mediocre prototype.

3. Africanus. The male of this subset, according to Linnaeus, could be recognized by his skin tone, face structure, and curly hair. This kind was apparently cunning, passive, and inattentive, and ruled by impulse. The female of this kind was also apparently shameless, because “they lactate profusely.”

4. Europeaus. The males of this subset were supposedly “changeable, clever, and inventive. He puts on tight clothing. He is governed by laws.”

In addition to these categories, Linnaeus also suggested there were some more miscellaneous ones that occurred: “‘wild men,’ dwarfs, troglodytes [cave dwellers], and ‘lazy Patagonians’ [South American hunter-gatherers].” Therefore, being the most civilized of the Homo sapiens, the Europeaus was obviously the most superior type in Charles Linnaeus’s view.

Before Linnaeus proposed the ideas mentioned above, “race” had been used to distinguish between different nationalities. But after he proposed the system above, Europeans began to identify themselves with a larger group: “white” people.

And so, because of the “scientific” classification proposed by Linnaeus, “white” people began to think of themselves as “superior.”

Have you ever wondered how things might have been different if an African, or Native American, or Asian scientist had proposed the system of classification?  Is it any surprise that we often end up believing that the “best” people are the ones who are most like us? (take a second look at Linnaeus’ portrait above).  And is there any way we can rid ourselves of more than 250 years of discrimination based on the .01 percent of the genetic code that makes us different from each other?

Hossain says the concept of racism did not always exist.  What would it take to get to the place where it no longer does?

A famous Virginian once wrote that “all men are created equal”–not the same, but equal.  And the Creator himself–after looking on humankind in all its diversity–said that it was good, “very good.”

Today, let’s try looking on all of humankind through His eyes.

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