Sweden’s History of Racism: Part 2 – Carl Von Linné

So in this part we’ll talk about Carl Von Linné, the prince of botany, and the role he played in Sweden’s contribution to systemic racism as well as his role in (some say) the very foundation of the ideology itself.

You probably know him from the previous 100 SEK bill or as ”that famous flower guy”. It’s impossible to grow up here, or live here for a period of time, without seeing his face or hearing his name. He’s one of Sweden’s greats. What Charles Darwin was to the science of evolution, Carl Von Linné was to modern botany. He formalized the two-term naming system (binomial nomenclature), which is used to name flowers, plants, animals and organisms and in turn categorize them. He helped the world (somewhat) agree on a universal naming system and provided a system by which to do so (if you which o know more about the system in detail, you’ll find that here), this was his life’s work (1707-1778). We use this same system today for ex. when referring to ourselves – Homo sapiens ( + another sapiens in our case), Homo is our genus (our race), it includes everything from our long dead archaic ancestors to us today. Sapiens means wise, it’s the name we gave ourselves because unlike our previous ancestors, somebody decided our most notable trait seems to be our wit. Then recently somebody added another sapiens, to differentiate between earlier generations of Homo sapiens vs you and me, since we’ve been around for a while now.

– So, he categorized animals, named some plants, what’s the big deal? He clearly did us a great favor. He helped lay the foundation of taxonomy and the scientific field of ecology? Yeah, you’re right, he did all that. However the categorization didn’t stop there, he helped lay the very foundation of categorizing humans too and here’s where it starts going south.

Linné’s system of taxonomy, aka the system he used to categorize plants and bugs, was also known as the very first system to include humans grouped with apes, rather than as a separate group. He noted that both species shared the same anatomy, thus he grouped us both under Antropomorpha (manlike). He received loads of criticism (and some praise later on) for it. Putting man at the same level as monkeys and nature itself (in 1735) was incredibly disrespectful. (White) humans were seen as spiritually and physically more advanced beings, created in the very image of God. A lot of people refused the idea that they could be related to apes, or that they were apart of nature rather than above it. However this controversial evolutionary debate wouldn’t really take off until a few years later with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859).

Systema Naturae, first edition published in 1735, was Linné’s most famous work, and he came to publish several updated editions of the book over time. This first edition contained some animals and plants he had classified, however here he also introduced the concept of subdividing humans in to four varieties based on continent and skin color. If you’re read up on racism, or just grown up and existed in today’s historically racist society, you’ve probably stumbled across these classifications before: Europæus albesc (white europeans), American rubesc (redish american), Asiaticus fuscus (tawny asians, later changed to Asiaticus luridus, meaning yellow asians) and Africanus nigr (short for nigriculus) (blackish African). He also added an extra section known as a ”wastebasket” specifically for the purpose of categorizing humans that didn’t fit anywhere else, humans that were seen as monstrous, wild, abnormal or ”unknown”. Each one of the groups came with their own characteristics of course, based on his measurements and observations. White Europeans were, to quote ”of fair complexion, sanguine temperament, and brawny form… (they were) of gentle manners, acute in judgment, of quick invention, and governed by fixed laws and their mother”, yellow Asians were melancholic, greedy, inflexible and governed by superstition, red Americans were hot tempered, stubborn, ”free” and governed by tradition and the black Africans were, to quote ”Of black complexion, phlegmatic (cool) temperament and relaxed fibre… Of crafty indolent (lazy), and careless disposition and are governed in their actions by caprice (impulse)”.

This (basically) marks the very invention of the concept of race, at least as a respectable scientific field of study. Other people contributed as well, other people were discussing the same things at the time, but Linné’s Systema Naturae became the blueprint, the reference. People have always been racist/discriminatory/oppressive, however from now, it becomes acceptable to measure skulls, establish an institute for the study of racial biology (we had one here in Uppsala, Sweden) as well as castrate, systematically oppress and assimilate indigenous tribes, all under the name of science. Sweden did all of these things and more. Other countries did all of these things and more too and science provided an excuse, a sheet to hide under. We still use science as an excuse for these same people to this day, speak of how their interests were strictly scientific, they were children of their time, that they couldn’t possibly know what their studies would be used to justify. All (mostly) true, and after we’ve acknowledged that I hope we can accept then how being a racist doesn’t have to be a conscious effort, you can literally just be a child of your time/environment, this is one choice, however here’s another on, NOT being a racist means you make a conscious decision to work on not being one. Our collective history of racism, and it’s role in our ”modern” civilization’s very foundation means we’re left with a structure today that perpetuates it.

I’ve seen loads of people come to Linné’s defence to talk about how he wasn’t really racist, he just categorized people based on their looks. The reality is we’ll probably never know whether he was or not, we can speculate – Hmm yes most people like him at his time were, but for the topic at hand and as a conclusion of this topic to be honest it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we need to recognize the impact his work had on both botany and racism.


Carl Von Linné

Race and History: Comments from an Epistemological Point of View

Racism: A Very Short Introduction