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Linnaeus and the Four Corners of the World

  • Staffan Müller-Wille

Abstract

Many accounts of the history of the race concept place the naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707–78), and his Systema Naturae (1735), at the beginning of modern concepts of race, in contrast to older notions that did not yet reduce race to physical traits, but presented it as the outcome of an inextricable entanglement of blood, soil, and customs.1 In the slim, 11-page folio Systema Naturae (1735) that laid the foundations for the 22-year-old Swedish medical student’s future claim to fame, “man (Homo)” was presented as part of the animal kingdom in a two-page tabular arrangement of classes, orders, and genera (Figure 9.1). Placing humans among the class of four-footed animals (Quadrupedia)—animals possessing a hairy body (corpus hirsutum), four feet (pedes quatuor), as well as viviparous and breastfeeding females (feminae viviparae, lactiferae)— and, within that class, among the order of the “human-shaped” (Anthropomorpha)—alongside the apes (Simia), and the sloth (Bradypus)— Linnaeus cleverly defined the genus Homo not by some presumably universal morphological or physiological feature, but by the human capacity for self-knowledge. What is interesting about this definition is that it addresses the reader by citing the famous dictum “Know thyself” (Nosce te ipsum), and then proceeds to split up the genus Homo into four distinct groups: the white European, the red American, the tawny Asian, and the black African.2

Keywords

Skin Color Human Diversity Linnean Society Philosophical Account Color Term 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Stephen J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, 2nd edn (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), 66; see C. Loring Brace, Race Is a Four-Letter Word: The Genesis of the Concept (Oxford University Press, 2005), 17–36, for a more recent version of the standard account.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Carl Linnaeus, Systema Naturae (Amsterdam: Schouten, 1935), unpag. [p. 10].Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Gunnar Broberg, Homo sapiens L.: Studier i Carl von Linnés naturuppfattning och människolära (Uppsala: Almquist & Wiksell, 1975), ch. 5.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Carl Linnaeus, “Rön om växters plantering grundat pä naturen,” Kungliga Svenska Vetenskaps-Akademiens Handlingar 1 (1739), 5–24.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See, for example, Jonathan Marks, Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race, and History (New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction, 1995), 50.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Phillip R. Sloan, “The Gaze of Natural History,” in Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains, ed. Christopher Fox, Roy Porter, and Robert Wokler (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 112–51, 128. Presenting Linnaeus’s distinction as a series of trinomials goes back at least to Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man, 66, and probably has its origin in an English translation of the first part of the thirteenth, posthumous edition of Systema Naturae that was published in 1792; see Carl Linnaeus, The Animal Kingdom, or Zoological System, ed. Johann Friedrich Gmelin, trans. Robert Kerr (London and Edinburgh: A. Strahan, T. Cadell, and W. Creech, 1792), 45. As Kerr stated quite openly in the full title of the publication, this edition contained “numerous additions from more recent zoological writers.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 8.
    Carl Linnaeus, Genera Plantarum (Leiden: Wishoff, 1737), “Ratio operis,” aph. 8 [unpag.]. For a translation of this important methodological text, see Staffan Müller-Wille and Karen Reeds, “A Translation of Carl Linnaeus’ Introduction to Genera Plantarum (1737),” Studies in History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences 38 (2007), 563–72.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Linnaeus, Genera Plantarum, “Ratio operis,” aph. 5; see Staffan Müller-Wille, “Collection and Collation: Theory and Practice of Linnaean Botany,” Studies in History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 38 (2007), 541–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Carl Linnaeus, Critica Botanica (Leiden: Wishoff, 1737), 255. Linnaeus knew of many cases of “constant varieties” among plants, and seems to have shared the widespread conviction that the environment has effects on organisms that will only recede after many generations upon transplantation; see John Ramsbottom, “Linnaeus and the Species Concept,” Proceedings of the Linnean Society London 150 (1938), 192–219. Conversely, he believed that exotic plants, even from warmer regions of the globe, could be acclimatized to Swedish conditions; see Lisbet Koerner, “Linnaeus’s Floral Transplants,” Representations 47 (1994), 144–69.Google Scholar
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    Carl Linnaeus, Sponsalia Plantarum (Stockholm: Salvius, 1746), 26.Google Scholar
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    Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (Paris: Imprimerie Royale, 1749), 3: 371–530.Google Scholar
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    A catalogue of Celsius’s botanical library has been preserved which lists Marcgrave’s work; see “Catalogus Bibliothecae Botanicae … Olavo Celsio, Bibliotheca haec Regia suo aeve emit d. XV. Novemb. MDCCXXXVIII,” Uppsala University Library, Donationskataloger över tryckta böcker m.m. A-J, Bibl. Arkiv K 52:1. On Linnaeus and Celsius, see Wilfrid Blunt, The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus (London: Collins, 1971), 30–6.Google Scholar
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    Willem Piso and Georg Marcgrave, Historia Natvralis Brasiliae (Amsterdam: Elzevir, 1648), 268: “In genere autem vocant omnes Europaeos.”Google Scholar
  14. 19.
    Harald Vallerius, De Varia Hominum Forma Externa (Uppsala: Werner, 1705); François Bernier, “Nouvelle division de la terre par les différentes espèces ou races d’hommes qui l’habitent,” Journal de Sçavans, 24 April (1684), 133–40. As far as I can see, there is no evidence that Linnaeus ever read Bernier’s essay.Google Scholar
  15. 22.
    Carl Linnaeus, “Manuscripta Medica,” vol. I, Linnean Society Library and Archives, Linnaean Collections, Box LM Gen, Folder LINN PAT GEN 2, f. 83v. The plate from which Linnaeus copied the bat can be found in Richard Bradley, A Philosophical Account of the Works of Nature (London: Mears, 1721), 88, pl. xiii, fig. ii. For a reproduction and discussion of Linnaeus’s drawing, see Isabelle Charmantier, “Carl Linnaeus and the Visual Representation of Nature,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 41.4 (2011), 365–404, 380, fig. 5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 25.
    It is easy to see, however, that Bradley’s contribution stands in the tradition of naturalizing human diversity, and treating it as a question of natural history, rather than theology, which began in Britain with John Locke; see David Carey, Locke, Shaftesbury, and Hutcheson: Contesting Diversity in the Enlightenment and Beyond (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 15–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Carl Linnaeus, Iter Lapponicum, ed. Thomas M. Fries. Skrifter af Carl von Linné, vol. 5 (Uppsala: Almqvist and Wiksells, 1913), 106.Google Scholar
  18. 28.
    For a detailed analysis of the frontispiece to Hortus Cliffortianus, see Gunnar Broberg, “Naturen pä bild: Anteckningar och Linneanska exempel,” Lychnos 1979–80 (1980), 231–56.Google Scholar
  19. 29.
    On the change from fuscus to luridus, see Michael Keevak, Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking (Princeton University Press, 2011), 51–7.Google Scholar
  20. 30.
    Carl Linnaeus, Systema Naturae, 10th edn, 3 vols (Stockholm: Salvius, 1758), 1: 20–2.Google Scholar
  21. 32.
    Carl Linnaeus, Systema Naturae, 12th edn, 3 vols (Stockholm: Salvius, 1766–68), Linnean Society London, Linnaean Collections, Library, BL.21, vol. 1, 29. The regional fauna that Linnaeus produced for Sweden contains a classification of his home country’s population into four varieties: “Goths” (Gothi), “Finns” (Fennones), “Lapps” (Lappones), and “Various mixtures of the preceding” (Varii & mixti ex praecedentibus); see Carl Linnaeus, Fauna Suecica (Stockholm: Salvius, 1746), 1.Google Scholar
  22. 33.
    Mary Floyd-Wilson, English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 86. In the same way, “Creole physicians found ways to adapt the wide and permissive Hippocratic landscape to their New World circumstances”; Carlos López Beltrán, “Hippocratic Bodies, Temperament and Castas in Spanish America (1570–1820),” Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 8 (2007), 253–89, 276–7.Google Scholar
  23. 34.
    For a detailed discussion, see Peter F. Stevens and Steven P. Cullen, “Linnaeus, the Cortex-Medulla Theory, and the Key to His Understanding of Plant Form and Natural Relationships,” Journal of the Arnold Arboretum 71 (1990), 179–220.Google Scholar
  24. 35.
    Lisbet Koerner, Linnaeus: Nature and Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  25. 36.
    On the older Linnaeus’s disenchantment with natural history, see Elis Malmeström, Carl von Linnés religiösa äskädning (Stockholm: Svenska Kyrkans Diakonistyrelse Bokförlag, 1926).Google Scholar
  26. 37.
    Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976 (London: Picador, 2003).Google Scholar
  27. 38.
    Carl Linnaeus, Fundamentum Fructificationis (Uppsala: No publisher, 1762). The proposition that the environment of Africa, in particular, fosters the production of new species echoes ancient ideas; see Harvey M. Feinberg and Joseph B. Solodow, “Out of Africa,” Journal of African History 43 (2002), 255–61.Google Scholar
  28. 40.
    On Linnaeus’s classification of man, see Gunnar Broberg, “Linnaeus’s Classifications of Man,” in Linnaeus: The Man and His Work, ed. Tore Frängsmyr (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983). Eric Voegelin has made the general point that the kind of body-soul dualism that we find exemplified in Linnaeus tended to prevent the full naturalization of human difference; see Eric Voegelin, Die Rassenidee in der Geistesgeschichte von Ray bis Carus (Berlin: Junker und Dünnhaupt Verlag, 1933).Google Scholar
  29. 41.
    Maaike van der Lugt and Charles de Miramon, “Introduction,” in L’hérédité entre Moyen Age et époque moderne, ed. Maaike van der Lugt and Charles de Miramon (Florence: SISMEL—Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2008), 3–40.Google Scholar
  30. 42.
    Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, A Cultural History of Heredity (University of Chicago Press, 2012), 59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 43.
    On Kant’s theory, see Raphaël Lagier, Les races humaines selon Kant (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2004).Google Scholar
  32. 44.
    Renato Mazzolini, “Skin Color and the Origin of Physical Anthropology,” in Reproduction, Race, and Gender in Philosophy and the Early Life Sciences, ed. Susanne Lettow (New York: SUNY Press, 2014), 131–61, 151. 210–228Google Scholar

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© Staffan Müller-Wille 2014

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