Linnaeus’ complicated relationship with racism

COLUMN

7 May 2021

four humanlike creatures

Illustration from the dissertation Anthropomorpha, by Christian Emmanuel Hoppius under the direction of Linnaeus. The illustration describes the relationship between humans and apes.

Since June 2020, Carl Linnaeus has been a subject of debate in Sweden and around the world. What sparked it off were the actions of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Statues of slave owners have been lambasted or destroyed. In Sweden, the discussion has very much concerned Linnaeus and whether he was a racist or a “biological racist”. Our view is that this debate is excessively polarised and simplistic, and we want to nuance the issue.

Annika Windahl Pontén, PhD in History of Science
and Ideas, Uppsala University.
Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

The discussion has been conducted largely from either one side or another. There are two schools of thought. Proponents of one assert that Linnaeus was the first to formulate the doctrine of “scientific racism”, from which Sweden’s “race biology” and present-day forms of racism are in the direct line of descent. Those who follow the other school deny that Linnaeus was racist and believe that everything can be explained by his being “a child of his time”.

We consider neither of these positions plausible, and therefore wish to problematise a few of the arguments put forward. In our reasoning, we rely on both our own and others’ studies. There is ample research that elucidates issues relating to Linnaeus, colonialism and racism. Such work is carried out at Uppsala University, but also at the Linnean Society of London and elsewhere outside Sweden.

Was Linnaeus a racist or biological racist? Linnaeus was interested in order and boundaries in nature. As for mankind, he believed there was a single human species. He did not use the term “race”, but divided humans into four “varieties”, by continent and skin colour: European (white), African (black), Asian (yellow) and American (red). These varieties were linked to attributes, of which he thought the least desirable were to be found in the African, whom he considered was enervated by a hot climate. He characterised the white European, on the other hand, as inventive.

Linda Andersson Burnett, PhD, researcher at
the Department of History of Science and Ideas,
Uppsala University.

Linnaeus believed that these differences were due to climate and customs. He was therefore no “biological racist”; nor could he have predicted what biological racists would later write. Nonetheless, his approach involved evaluation, since the “varieties” are listed hierarchically. The list varies from one edition to another, but the African always comes last. Linnaeus may thus be said to have been among the contributors to the emergence of scientific racism. In our view, however, it is hard to identify any one “father of scientific racism”. Instead, this set of ideas was the outcome of a historical process of which Linnaeus was part, but that was shaped by many factors and people. The quest for a “founder” virtually creates an inverse cult of genius.

Was Linnaeus a child of his time? Linnaeus was neither the first nor the only person to express himself in condescending, stereotyped terms. The classification in his Systema Naturae, however, exerted a major impact and spread worldwide. Natural historians now also studied and classified humans, and Linnaeus gave this activity a scientific footing. Both his students in Sweden and biologists in other countries, including Britain and its Empire, assimilated Linnaean ideas. It is important to add that some of Linnaeus’ successors placed great emphasis on variations among humans, while others placed very little.

On display in 18th-century society were a spectrum of attitudes towards humans who lived in different parts of the world, and also towards slavery and colonialism. There were people of African descent, such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, who wrote of the barbaric nature of slavery and about their own humanity. There was also criticism, from the philosopher James Beattie among others, to the effect that Linnaeus and others dehumanised Africans. All these individuals were “children of their time”, and this kind of argument cannot condone unfairness and injustice in historical periods. We can never escape from the fact that we can study history only through the prism of our own day. Society was different in the past: injustices existed – and were defended – that are unacceptable to us today.

The question of whose statue should be allowed to stand in our public space is key. To reconsider who is represented, and why, is reasonable. Sometimes the best solution is to take down a statue. Sometimes there are other options, such as informing people about its complex history. Whether in the context of statues or ideas, the legacy of Linnaeus has been put to both positive and negative uses. How we make use of his legacy today is our shared responsibility.

 

Annika Windahl Pontén, PhD in History of Science and Ideas, Uppsala University 

Linda Andersson Burnett, PhD, researcher at the Department of History of Science and Ideas, Uppsala University

Last modified: 2021-02-14