Wednesday, November 03, 2010

'Homo monstrosus': the Enlightenment debate on race

[The quotations below are from P. J. Marshall and Glyndwr Williams, The Great Map of Mankind. British Perceptions of the World in the Age of Enlightenment (London: J. Dent & Sons, 1982), chapter 8.]

From the late 15th century Europeans had come into contact with a great variety of human beings, and as they did so assumptions about the unity of the human race, based on the Genesis account of creation, came to be questioned. The blackness of the African presented a huge problem, and by the 1730s some Enlightenment thinkers were arguing that white and black peoples must have descended from different ancestors. The great French naturalist Louis Buffon believed that 'mankind are not composed of species essentially different from each other', but he also argued that the temperate zones produced the best human beings. (This is an early example of climatic determinism.) The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus divided humankind into two species, Homo sapiens and Homo monstrosus. Guess where he placed Africans.

In the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae (1758) Linnaeus classified Europeans and Africans thus:
European - white, sanguine, muscular; long blond hair; blue eyes; gentle, most intelligent; a discoverer. He covers himself with clothing suitable to the northern climate. He is ruled by religious custom.
African- black, phlegmatic, lax; black, curly hair; silky skin; apelike note, swollen lips; the bosoms of the women are distended; their breasts give milk copiously; crafty, slothful, careless, he smears himself with fat. He is ruled by authority.
Evangelical Christians who attacked these views had at least one advantage over the proponents of racial inferiority - the Genesis account of creation that claimed that all human beings were descended from Adam and Eve. In our own age, evolution and DNA have provided confirmation that humankind is a single species (monogenesis).

There's a fascinating article in The Linnaean (October, 2006) about John Hunter (1728-93), honorary surgeon to George III, who is rightly acclaimed as the founder of scientific surgery. Born in Scotland, he studied anatomy in London and gained a reputation as a skilled naturalist. His study of nature led him to propound ideas on the origin of life which anticipated Darwin. Just as remarkably, in 1788 he propounded the idea that 'our first parents, Adam and Eve, were indisputably black', and since they were created in God's image, therefore God was black. This was two centuries ahead of proof that human beings originated in Africa.