Theories of Race

Carl von Linné (Linnaeus)

  • Carl von Linné (Linnaeus)'s portrait

    Carl von Linné (Linnaeus)



00:00 / 08:10

The uncertain and marginal concept of race, applied mostly to animal breeding and noble lineages and used interchangeably with terms such as stock, breed, type, variety, or species, began to assume a more definite and recognizably modern meaning when it began to be applied to extensive and distinct populations whose differences could be located primarily in the body and secondarily in cultural habits, history, language, religion, and characteristic behaviors. The most decisive of the early steps toward modernity in this sense were taken by Carl von Linné (Linnaeus), a classificatory genius who established the principles and many of the categories that order scientific knowledge today.

Convinced that the world was regulated by a hidden God-given order, with each group constituting a separate thought in the mind of God, Linnaeus undertook an immense inventory of all living things, introducing Latin binomial nomenclature as a way of making knowledge systematic, comprehensible, and easily retrieved. He devoted his life to this vast project, devising classificatory systems for thousands of plants and animals, even extending his researches to other areas such as minerals, diseases, and clouds. First published in 1735, Linnaeus’s major work, Systema Naturae, was an extraordinary innovation, both immensely influential and controversial.

The most delicate problem Linnaeus confronted was the place of man. Any attempt to position humankind in the natural order ran against the grain of the Christian tradition, which attributed to mankind both a divine soul and dominion over the beasts. In the 1735 edition, Linnaeus finessed this difficulty by positioning mankind in the order of nature, and therefore subject to the same kind of scrutiny as other animals—but not precisely of it. Homo was listed as a species within the genus Anthropomorpha, but while the other members of this genus—monkeys and sloths—were defined by particularities of their teeth and fingers, Homo was defined simply by the Greek motto Nosce te ipsum, or “know thyself.” Homo was divided into four subdivisions based on geography, with separate groups in Europe, America, Asia, and Africa.

To this four-part scheme was added Paradoxa, which included such unconfirmed oddities as a Satyr, “with a tail, hairy, bearded . . . with a tendency toward gesticulation, extremely lascivious.” His commitment to rationality and science notwithstanding, Linnaeus was still living in a world in which traveler’s tales, which were generally exaggerated when not wholly fictional, were taken seriously. In 1749, he went earnestly in search of a mermaid said to be stranded on the coast of Denmark. He failed to find her, and by the tenth edition (1758) of Systema Naturae, many other reports of fabulous creatures had also been discredited, with the result that he was able to produce an entirely reformulated system in which Homo—now become Homo sapiens—was placed firmly in the natural system.

In this edition, mankind is positioned not among the Anthropomorpha but within the “Animal Kingdom” as the first genus in the Mammalian order, alongside Simia, a group that included monkeys, apes, lemurs, and bats, all characterized by their teeth and “lactiferous teats.” Defined by the ability to form a consciousness of one’s own existence, and distinguished from other primates not by bodily form but by the faculties of speech and reason, humankind is now seen as an object as well as a subject of knowledge. To the four geographical regions in which subgroups of Homo were to be found, Linnaeus added the further dimensions of color (white, red, dark, and black), and the four temperaments or “humours” identified by Hippocrates, with Europeans being sanguine, Americans (Indians, or Native Americans) choleric, Asians melancholic, and Africans phlegmatic.

While the tenth edition is far more sophisticated and precise in its categories than the first had been, the new categories still reflect a very limited understanding that continued to credit tales of man-apes and monsters that blurred the human-animal boundary. The four categories of Homo sapiens (European, African, Asian, American) are framed by “wild men” (homo ferus) and “monsters” (homo monstrosus). Like humans, all these are “diurnal” in contrast to the nocturnal “Troglodyte,” the name Linnaeus gave to the orangutang, which he identified not as simian but as a second species of Homo. (Elsewhere, he wrote, “I cannot discover the difference between man and the orangoutang.”*)

Linnaeus sometimes seems to endorse a concept traceable back to Aristotle’s “scala naturae” (scale of nature) that would continue to structure the thinking of many subsequent writers on race—the Great Chain of Being, a single continuous order of beings stretching from the highest (which, in a Christian environment, was God; in non-Christian contexts, man) to the lowest forms of animate life, each order or variation separated from its neighbors by small, almost imperceptible differences. This highly adaptable notion of continuity and gradation proved useful in a range of intellectual contexts, including that of nineteenth-century evolution. The notion of the “missing link,” for example, reflects the belief that creation was continuous, as in a chain. Many post-classical adaptations of the Great Chain of Being were hierarchical, a fact that recommended the concept to some later writers as an explanation of the system of races. Linnaeus, however, never ranked his categories. In the tenth edition of Systema Naturae, the Europeans were not listed first, and the qualities attributed to non-European races were often arguably complimentary, with the Americans, for example, being described as “fierce, gay, free.” While there were evaluations and hints of ranking in the Linnaean approach, the concept of hierarchy remained, in his work, undeveloped.

By incorporating humanity in the natural order and defining groups by color, geography, and culture, Linnaeus laid the groundwork for the field of anthropology, which emerged as a self-aware discourse in the following century. Many of his classifications were quietly dropped but one that remained was his grouping of humans and apes in the same genus, a gathering that was rejected by Blumenbach among others, but which would have a rebirth after Darwin, when a search for “ape-like” humans was thought to provide information about the origins of humankind.

Linnaeus identified the task of natural science as one of classification. When applied to humanity, this task virtually entailed the concept of race as a way of organizing knowledge of the peoples of the world. Linnaeus’ classifications included characterizations that reflected, reinforced, or helped to create conventional wisdom or popular understandings of those peoples. The identification of Asians as “melancholic,” “stiff,” and “governed by opinion,” or of Africans as “lazy,” “careless,” and “governed by chance” (or in an early edition, “governed by the arbitrary will of the master”), while Europeans were “governed by laws” anticipated and offered themselves to subsequent writers who would create ranked taxonomies of the human in the course of developing a concept of race—a term Linnaeus never used.

*Quoted in Nancy Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 7. 

A General System of Nature


A General System of NatureMammalia scan

Wilfred Blunt, Linnaeus: The Compleat Naturalist (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936).

Justin E. H. Smith, Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).