Thursday, November 26, 2015

Blumenbach's racial taxonomy

Among those influenced [by Linnaeus] was the German medical scientist Johann Blumenbach, who in 1776 published the widely read and tellingly titled On the Natural Varieties of Mankind.

Although Blumenbach avoided the moralistic terms embraced by Linnaeus, he offered the first explanation for the presumed superiority of the white race. . . . Blumenbach's rank ordering is a classic instance of a scientific error leading to a moral wrong. We have yet to escape fully the habits of thought rooted in the flawed assumption that deep cultural traits can be predicted by superficial physiological traits—the shape of a nos, ehte pigmentation of the skin, the texture of hair.

Blumenbach's racial taxonomy differed from the Linnaean taxonomy in its presentation of five rather than four races, making the Pacific Islanders a race separate from Linnaeus's Asiaticus.
Kenneth Prewitt, What is Your Race? The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2013), ch. 2

Blumenbach's arbitrary distinctions took something that is biologically real (phenotypic variation) and made something that is biologically suspect (five races). A folk taxonomy became a biological fact. In the eighteenth century in some parts of the world, the Americas included, this biological fact became a political fact.

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