27 Feb 2008

Gunnar Broberg on Linné

Gunnar Broberg

Lund historian Gunnar Broberg presented a talk today on the various ways that Carl von Linné organized human beings into categories. Though Linné's ideas are often thought of as setting the groundwork for the pseudo-scientific racism of the 19th century, Broberg notes that it's difficult to recognize cultural imperialism in Linné's system of classification.

Homo sapiens, the thinking human, was not an innate characteristic but rather a state to be attained through effort and accomplishment. Set against this classification were a variety of mythical and imagined alternate orders, including Homo ferus (children raised by wolves), Homo nocturnus (those who walked at night) and Homo troglodytes. Though he did indeed divide humanity up into Africanus, Americanus, Asiaticus, Europeanus, and Monstrosus, his ascription of the Four Humours to the first four of this quintet was motivated by the typical 18th-century desire for order and pattern: if there were four continents, then surely they must map neatly onto the Four Humours.

Linné himself was somewhat of a critic of the European, going to so far as to place the Native American near the top of the hierarchy of humanity. This was of course in line with the conception of the Indian as the 'noble savage,' but what is more interesting is Linné's absolute hatred for the civilized European fop, the Frenchified dandy which in his eyes represented the decadent nadir of his own continent. As Broberg notes, in the 18th century it was fashionable to hate the fashionable.

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