“Go Back To Where You Came From!” An Anthropological Look at Linnaeus, Taxonomy, and Classification

If you’ve never studied biology before, or expressed any interest in the worlds of zoology or botany or mycology (the study of fungi; and no I didn’t just Google that three seconds ago…), then you’d be forgiven for not knowing who Carl Linnaeus is (or was). The Swede is largely credited as the “Father of Modern Taxonomy” for his system of classification outlined in his book Systema Naturae (first edition published in 1735).

Of course, the concept of classification had been around long before Linnaeus. DeSalle and Tattersall (2018) argue that ‘[n]aming things is a very deeply embedded component of our cultural and evolutionary development’ (DeSalle & Tattersall 2018, 30). The very basic of language is to name things, and, more than that, naming things in relation to other things. The human naming of things – including “natural” things like plants and animals and fundi – reveals ‘a whole mentality, a view of how the universe is constituted’ (Douglas 1965, 197). Indeed, Mary Douglas’ examination of the rules of Leviticus (Douglas 1966) – dictating what animals are acceptable to eat and why, based on common characteristics – reveals that classification of the natural world was around long, long, before Linnaeus. Classifying the world around us, Douglas argues, protects society from ideological ‘ambiguity and dissonance’ (Douglas 1965, 196). In doing so, humans put the natural world ‘in its place’ (Douglas 1965, 196), and this implies ‘only two conditions, a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order’ (Douglas 1965, 198). (It was in this context that her arguably most famous assertion that “dirt” is simply ‘matter out of place’ (ibid.) appeared).

Where Linnaeus “revolutionised” the world of taxonomy, was in his ‘great gift… of standardization’ (Naumann 2006, 80). He created the binomial system of nomenclature that is still used in the natural sciences today, where each species is given a two-part name in Latin and/or Greek form: First, their genus (e.g. Homo; capitalised), followed by their individual species name (sapiens). (The name Homo sapiens means “wise man”. He was not the most original in his choices). Linnaeus was the first to (officially, at least) classify human beings as belonging to the same kingdom as animals. (Placing humans in the same order as primates came much later, after Darwin and his own “revolutionizing” work on evolution).

Yet Linnaeus was not content to leave it at that. Systema Naturae was published amidst a boom of colonial expansion, where the concept of “race” was perhaps more prominent than ever before. Subsequently, good ol’ Carl thought it would be fitting to divide Homo sapiens into four racial subspecies – and brace yourself, because by modern standards it truly is awful:

‘(1) American: red, bilious, straight – governed by customs; (2) European: white, sanguine, muscular – governed by customs; (3) Asian: sallow (pale), melancholic, stiff – governed by opinion; and (4) African: black, phlegmatic, stiff – governed by chance’ (cited in Diogo 2018, 283).

These distinctions were made not just on skin colour but on temperament and “humour”, too. Linnaeus also went so far as to include the further subspecies ‘Ferus’ (for, I kid you not, feral children) and ‘Monstrosus’, denoting ‘mythical people with strange morphologies’ (DeSalle & Tattersall 2018). Clearly, he was getting a little carried away. Anthropologically speaking, it reveals an interesting paradigm. In the art versus science debate, Anthropology is largely considered more on the “art” side, whereas taxonomy – based on principles of biology – is considered a science. Yet relegating humans into four racial subspecies – as well as two completely “mythological” subspecies – was clearly not based on any “real” science. We now know, genetically speaking, that there is only one species of human, and that remains Homo sapiens. Sorry Linnaeus.

Yet when these proposed subspecies were published, it was the first time that the notion of “race” had been given a “scientific” basis. Contemporaries of Linnaeus, such as the Dutch physician and anatomist Petrus Camper, used this taxonomic classification of race to further his studies of physical anthropology, including the dubious and now-debunked “science” of craniology/phrenology. As such, the “science” of race loomed large in the colonial mindset of the time, with the “lower human races” of the colonies seen as ‘powerful personifications of wilderness to be fought heroically and conquered by civilised Westerners’ (Corbey quoted in Diogo 2018, 487). Race was given a solid hierarchy, and Anthropology a scientific basis. Certainly, the history of Anthropology is fraught with racist and colonial representations of “primitive”, “less-developed” peoples. Perhaps we should be grateful, then, that the “science” of Anthropology has been discredited, to allow for the more subjectivist interpretations of the “art” of Anthropology to take its place.

Image Source: Time Toast.com

https://www.timetoast.com/timelines/scientific-racism


References:

DeSalle, R. and Tattersall, I. 2018, ‘The Name Game: Linneaus’s 260-Year-Old Classification of Human Individuals and Populations Was the Start of a Hugely Problematic Trend’, Natural History, Vol. 126, Issue 6, pp.30

Diogo, R 2018, ‘Links Between the Discovery or Primates and Anatomical Comparisons with Humans, the Chain of Being, Our Place in Nature, and Racism’, Journal of Morphology, Vol. 279, Issue 4, pp.472-493

Douglas, M 1965, ‘Pollution’, in W.A. Lessa and E.Z. Vogt (Eds.), Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, Third Edition, Harper & Row Publishers, U.S.A., pp.196-202

Douglas, M 1966, ‘The Abominations of Leviticus’, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts and Pollution and Taboo, Routledge Publishing, United Kingdom, pp.42-58

Numann, P 2006, ‘What’s in the Box? Linnaeus’s Legacy’, Journal of Museum Ethnography, Vol. 18, pp.77-94

See Also:

No Homo Bro: Viewing Humans as Primates and the Nature/Culture Divide

Things We Wish We Knew In First Year: Art/Science Debate

An Anthropology of Scientific Things

A Few Lessons Learned From Anthropology’s Past