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"Scientific Racism" in Enlightened Europe:

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Biology 103
2000 First Web Report
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"Scientific Racism" in Enlightened Europe:
Linnaeus, Darwin, and Galton

Shah Aashna Hossain


The concept of racism did not always exist: in fact, it only really began with the ideas of the Enlightenment, mainly those that focused on evolution. And it was not solely influenced by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution: even before the one he put forth in Origin of Species, other evolutionary theories such as Lamarckism - proposed by Jean- Baptiste de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck, and modified by German zoologist Ernst Haeckel - a certain version of Lamarckism - already existed. Although the theories of the last two evolutionists did not involve natural selection, they also managed to inspire racism that was justified: it had science as its basis. Even as early as 1774, Edward Long - a Jamaican physicist - insisted that peoples of African descent "were a lower order of humanity, probably 'a different species of the same Genus'." (1)

The Problem with the Great Chain of Being

One of the new concepts that was introduced during the time of the Enlightenment was that of the Great Chain of Being. This was a hierarchy that linked all living organisms of the world, God being first, then the angels, then man; it went all the way down to the smallest insect. The purpose of the existence of the lower beings of the chain was to serve the higher beings: therefore, plants were used by animals, higher animals ate lower animals, men ate animals and had power over them, and a god had power over men. But problems arose with this system: some organisms and species did not fit neatly into the mold. One example is that of a being that would fit between men and animals. In 1699, when the chimp was first introduced to Britain, the human-like traits it possessed were modified in descriptions so as to make it that being that would be the perfect link between the two. However, the fact that it was not an ideal fit still remained (1).

In 1677, Dr. William Petty of England came up with a solution. He announced in a paper to the Royal Society that the missing link they had been looking for consisted of "savages", beings that fit between Caucasian men and other organisms. Thus, he also naturally concluded that since they were lower on the Great Chain, they were brought into being to serve and follow the will of the beings superior to them. At the time, his contemporaries did not pay much attention to his idea. But fifty years later, Swedish biologist Charles Linnaeus revived his notion (1).

The Beginning of Racial Classification

Though he did not believe all the concepts concerning the Great Chain of Being, Charles Linnaeus still did believe in a set hierarchy of organisms. In General System of Nature, published in 1735, he placed man in the order of primates along with the other mammals. However, he did believe that the one characteristic that distinguished men from the apes was the former being's ability to use the facility of reason. But distinctions in that order did not cease to be merely with that classification. He stated that variations within the Genus Homo sapiens existed as a result of varying cultures and climates (2). 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 (3). 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 (2).

3. Africanus. The male of this subset, according to Linnaeus, could be recognized by his skin tone, face structure, and curly hair (2). 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." (3)

4. Europeaus. The males of this subset were supposedly "changeable, clever, and inventive. He puts on tight clothing. He is governed by laws." (2)

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]." (4) Therefore, being the most civilized of the Homo sapiens, the Europeaus was obviously the most superior type in Charles Linnaeus's view (2).

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. Now the ideal physical standards were those of classical Greece. The further one's physical traits were from that notion of perfection, the less Caucasian one was. Numerous authors began to publish books to prove that Europeans were at the top of the racial hierarchy they believed in, alluding to some evolutionary theory or the other. And then, the British Empire selected one of its naturalists to study different species around the world (1).

Darwin and the Misuse of His Theory

Before Darwin carried out his observations that would later lead him to publish Origin of Species, numerous authors had already published books alluding to some evolutionary theory - but their purpose was to prove the superiority of the "white" race. In 1837, the British Empire authorized Charles Robert Darwin, an English naturalist, to sail to the Galapagos Islands aboard the H.M.S. Beagle in order to observe and record different types of flora and fauna. By studying them, their history, and the many varieties that existed at his time, Darwin - partially influenced by Thomas Malthus, British economist - came up with his own theory of evolution, which he called "natural selection." Simply put, it consisted of the thought that many varieties of each species of organism existed, and as time passed on and environments changed, those best suited to the environment would survive, and those varieties not so well-suited would die off. Those species that survived changed and developed as more time went on in order to better suit themselves to their surroundings. This idea is also known as the "survival of the fittest." (1)

Although the publication of his ideas in Origin of Species in 1859 caused quite an uproar within religious circles, it revolutionized natural science and - although it was not his intent - vindicated imperialist practices. Since Europeans believed themselves to be more technologically advanced than other peoples, Darwin's theory suggested that they were indeed the most superior race of all. It also suggested that the different human races were engaged in a competitive struggle to survive. Thus, it justified such ignorant acts as the conquest, colonization, and extermination of entire peoples. Conquest and colonization were necessary to educate and enlighten non-Christians, or "heathens". And if the heathens protested in any form, or if their land or goods were more desirable than their survival, they would simply be killed off. These acts did have a credible, scientific basis, after all. Because of this, England's conscience was at rest when it took over India, forced China to open trading ports, and when it took over various other Asian and African nations - France, Italy, and other European countries engaged in the latter activity also. Thus, by the turn of the twentieth century, only a few nations still preserved their independence. But the full extent of racial discrimination based on scientific theory had not yet been reached. That would come with the creation of a new field of study (1).

Sir Francis Galton, Father of Eugenics

One of the historical peaks of scientific racism was the establishment of eugenics. Francis Galton, who happened to be cousin to Darwin, is conventionally held responsible for the beginning of this scientific study of breeding and its improvement. In the chapter of his book Hereditary Genius - published in 1869 - entitled "The Comparative Worth of Different Races," Galton uses a sort of grading scale to point out where each race in the classification system he used lay according to its range of intelligence. On this scale, he stated that half of the men of each race would lie on the higher side of its ability, and the other half would lie in the lower side of its ability. In another division of this system, Athenians had the highest intelligence; British citizens and descendants were two "grades" below the Athenians; Lowland Scotsmen and Northern Englishmen were a fraction below the average English; Africans were two "grades" below the average English; and Australian Aborigines were last - one "grade" below Africans (5).

Galton's concepts of racial superiority became very popular in Europe as well as the United States - the latter even went so far as to pass laws passed to restrict immigrant flow to solely those peoples of North-European descent. As far back as 1691, Virginia had already banned all forms of inter-racial marriage. But now, in addition to the races previously mentioned as being so, even those people that belonged to the impoverished "white" were deemed genetically inferior (1).


The works of these authors have been used to justify many atrocities, including slavery, colonization, and racial genocide during the period of the authors' lives to more recent violations of human rights and attempts to keep races "pure" - i.e. Adolf Hitler's notion of the Final Solution and the master Aryan race. With the growing nationalism of the times, theories that were even as objective as Darwin's were taken out of context and twisted into whatever was necessary to exploit other people. The lesson here is that knowledge, whether newfound or old, can be manipulated for use that is either productive and for the overall "good" - or it can be distorted to hide the truth and thus prove to be a detriment for most. Considering this aspect of information, as has been shown, scientific knowledge can be particularly explosive.

WWW Sources

1) "A History of Race/ism", Prepared by Tim McCaskell, a representative of the Toronto Board of Education

2) "Philosophical Anthropology: The 18th Century Enlightenment: The Natural History of Man", A article

3)"Race: Is It a Valid Issue?", Prepared by Jon Morro, a student at the University of Michigan

4)"Quotations about the Psychology of Racial, Ethnic, National, and Regional Differences: 3. The History of the Study of Racial/Ethnic Differences", From a book published by British psychologist Christopher Brand: Personality, Biology, and Society

5)"Francis Galton: The Founder of Eugenics", Created by Jeremy Linden from History 387: "Studies in Victorian England: Prejudice and Policy" at Vassar College



Comments made prior to 2007
The obsession of "race" is an American past time. I have wondered recently, given that Darwinism is very entrenched in Socialism...if defending "social classes and distinctions" were a basis for the "inferior to superior" in Darwins scheme of things. The "nobibility" in Russia and other Europeans countries were treating the peasants and surfs, in some instances, worse than the Americans treated slaves.

The French Revolution was bloody and frightening mess right across the Channel. It would be very ironic if seeking to subtly bolster the idea of "inherited rank and privilege" handed an argument to the Socialists and Bolsheviks to topple that very structure..

It is a thought..So much of our science and literature is devoted to evolution..I thought I should put the word in at least what I am saying has "modern relevance." :) ... MM, 27 November 2006


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My only comment is that the

My only comment is that the Great Chain of Being was around centuries before the Enlightenment; in fact, it was the Enlightenment that pretty much destroyed all faith in the great chain.