Linnaeus and the Four Corners of the World

  • Staffan Müller-Wille


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


Skin Color Human Diversity Linnean Society Philosophical Account Color Term 
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  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
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    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
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© Staffan Müller-Wille 2014

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  • Staffan Müller-Wille

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