Linnaeus’ complicated relationship with racism
7 May 2021
Since June 2020, Carl Linnaeus has been a subject of debate in Sweden and around the world. What sparked it off were the actions of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Statues of slave owners have been lambasted or destroyed. In Sweden, the discussion has very much concerned Linnaeus and whether he was a racist or a “biological racist”. Our view is that this debate is excessively polarised and simplistic, and we want to nuance the issue.
The discussion has been conducted largely from either one side or another. There are two schools of thought. Proponents of one assert that Linnaeus was the first to formulate the doctrine of “scientific racism”, from which Sweden’s “race biology” and present-day forms of racism are in the direct line of descent. Those who follow the other school deny that Linnaeus was racist and believe that everything can be explained by his being “a child of his time”.
We consider neither of these positions plausible, and therefore wish to problematise a few of the arguments put forward. In our reasoning, we rely on both our own and others’ studies. There is ample research that elucidates issues relating to Linnaeus, colonialism and racism. Such work is carried out at Uppsala University, but also at the Linnean Society of London and elsewhere outside Sweden.
Was Linnaeus a racist or biological racist? Linnaeus was interested in order and boundaries in nature. As for mankind, he believed there was a single human species. He did not use the term “race”, but divided humans into four “varieties”, by continent and skin colour: European (white), African (black), Asian (yellow) and American (red). These varieties were linked to attributes, of which he thought the least desirable were to be found in the African, whom he considered was enervated by a hot climate. He characterised the white European, on the other hand, as inventive.
Linnaeus believed that these differences were due to climate and customs. He was therefore no “biological racist”; nor could he have predicted what biological racists would later write. Nonetheless, his approach involved evaluation, since the “varieties” are listed hierarchically. The list varies from one edition to another, but the African always comes last. Linnaeus may thus be said to have been among the contributors to the emergence of scientific racism. In our view, however, it is hard to identify any one “father of scientific racism”. Instead, this set of ideas was the outcome of a historical process of which Linnaeus was part, but that was shaped by many factors and people. The quest for a “founder” virtually creates an inverse cult of genius.
Was Linnaeus a child of his time? Linnaeus was neither the first nor the only person to express himself in condescending, stereotyped terms. The classification in his Systema Naturae, however, exerted a major impact and spread worldwide. Natural historians now also studied and classified humans, and Linnaeus gave this activity a scientific footing. Both his students in Sweden and biologists in other countries, including Britain and its Empire, assimilated Linnaean ideas. It is important to add that some of Linnaeus’ successors placed great emphasis on variations among humans, while others placed very little.
On display in 18th-century society were a spectrum of attitudes towards humans who lived in different parts of the world, and also towards slavery and colonialism. There were people of African descent, such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, who wrote of the barbaric nature of slavery and about their own humanity. There was also criticism, from the philosopher James Beattie among others, to the effect that Linnaeus and others dehumanised Africans. All these individuals were “children of their time”, and this kind of argument cannot condone unfairness and injustice in historical periods. We can never escape from the fact that we can study history only through the prism of our own day. Society was different in the past: injustices existed – and were defended – that are unacceptable to us today.
The question of whose statue should be allowed to stand in our public space is key. To reconsider who is represented, and why, is reasonable. Sometimes the best solution is to take down a statue. Sometimes there are other options, such as informing people about its complex history. Whether in the context of statues or ideas, the legacy of Linnaeus has been put to both positive and negative uses. How we make use of his legacy today is our shared responsibility.
Annika Windahl Pontén, PhD in History of Science and Ideas, Uppsala University
Linda Andersson Burnett, PhD, researcher at the Department of History of Science and Ideas, Uppsala University
“Most people can relate to music”
20 juni 2023
Mattias Lundberg’s area of research is liturgical music from the Renaissance. However, as a professor of musicology, he is used to covering the history of music in its entirety, and in recent years he has done precisely this in radio broadcasts fr...
Music Professor Mattias Lundberg receives Royal Medal
06 juni 2023
Mattias Lundberg is familiar from several series on Sveriges Radio’s channel P2, most recently “Fråga musikprofessorn” (“Ask the Music Professor”). Now he is being awarded a royal medal. “I’m pleased that musicology and the humanities are receivi...
“The public is generally poorly informed”
29 mars 2023
Hello May-Britt Öhman, researcher at the Centre for Multidisciplinary Studies on Racism and expert contributor to the Government's Committee on Reindeer Lands.What is the purpose of this inquiry?
From living heritage to zombie churches
22 mars 2023
Churches are preserved by an antiquarian system that risks killing them instead of keeping them alive. The Swedish State and the Church of Sweden therefore need to define new joint visions and goals to enable the ecclesiastical cultural heritage t...
Democracy researchers to participate in literature festival
22 mars 2023
War, crime and literature as a path to reconciliation is the theme of the Uppsala International Literature Festival on March 23–25. One of the organisers is the Democracy and Higher Education research programme at Uppsala University. Christina Kul...
ERC grant for research into Swedish slavery
03 februari 2023
Fredrik Thomasson, researcher at the Department of History at Uppsala University, has received the ERC Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). This grant relates to a project on Swedish colonial history on the island of Saint ...
The names given to the clouds, an important part of the university's history
04 januari 2023
The book “Molnspanare– en meteorologisk historia” (Cloud spotters – a meteorological history) tells of the emergence of meteorology as a scientific subject. Among other things, you can read about how the Latin names and classification of the cloud...
The history of Easter Island can teach us about sustainability
08 december 2022
Tourism has exploded on Easter Island over the last twenty years – something that has led to both financial gain and major encroachments on the island's environment. Researchers from Uppsala are now studying how history can teach us to build a mo...
Nobel Prize-winning literature often published by small publishing houses
05 december 2022
During the Christmas trade period, books written by the latest Nobel Prize laureate tend to sell at least as well as the more traditional bestsellers. It is very important for publishers to have Nobel Prize winners on their lists, according to res...
Conference: 30 years of EU citizenship
21 november 2022
This year marks 30 years since European Union citizenship came into being. It will be highlighted at an international, interdisciplinary conference in Uppsala on 22–23 November. Both researchers and all those interested are welcome to attend.
New honorary doctors in the Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences
03 november 2022
The faculties at Uppsala University have decided on the award of honorary doctorates for 2022. Among the new honorary doctors at faculties in the Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences are researchers in economic geography, family l...
The vulnerability of surrogate mothers in a global market
17 oktober 2022
A new dissertation on surrogacy highlights Thai women's experiences of having acted as surrogate mothers. The dissertation shows the women's vulnerability in a global surrogacy industry, but also provides a more nuanced picture of what makes women...
Historical discoveries as Linnaeus Garden is excavated
07 oktober 2022
Unique pots, eighteenth-century porcelain and the bones of countless fish and birds: archaeologists who have been excavating part of the Linnaeus Garden have come across a wealth of exciting objects that can tell us more about the people and anima...
Popular 18th-century medicine in a new form
05 september 2022
Hello to Nils-Otto Ahnfelt, PhD pharmacist and visiting researcher at the Department of Pharmaceutical Biosciences. Together with the historian of science Hjalmar Fors, you have developed a reconstruction of the 300-year-old medicine Hjärnes Testa...
Torgny Segerstedt Medal and Geijer Prize winners announced
05 september 2022
This year’s Torgny Segerstedt Medal has been awarded to Mikael Stenmark, professor in philosophy of religion at the Department of Theology. The Geijer Prize goes to Viktor Persarvet and Astrid Wendel-Hansen.
Digging from the present down to antiquity
30 augusti 2022
Welcome to the Viking Age! The archaeology students, with their trowels and their scrapers, have dug past the medieval layers and made their way down to the 11th century, approximately 30 centimetres below today's ground level. During the seminar ...
The sheep – Gotland’s symbol of sustainability
14 juni 2022
Sheep are the strongest symbol of sustainability on Gotland, according to Gurbet Peker. Not only do real ones graze all over the island, you can even find sheep sculpted in concrete in Visby. Peker researches the day-to-day lives of lamb farmers i...
Can democracy solve the climate crisis?
13 juni 2022
Hello Linda Wedlin, organisor and moderator of a panel discussion during Almedalen Week with the theme ‘What knowledge and what kind of democracy is needed for a successful climate transition?’ What are you going to be discussing?
Mapping people of the past by means of their bones
09 maj 2022
What is the best way to find out about a human being or animal that has been dead for perhaps several centuries? “Study the bones” is what Sabine Sten, professor of osteoarchaeology, would say. They can reveal an individual's age, body length, DNA...
Transforming space and society in Kiruna
24 mars 2022
State and corporate ideas about nature, people and the future played a decisive role in the development of Kiruna as a mining town over a century ago. Since 2004, when 6,000 Kiruna residents were informed that they would have to move because of gr...