Bad Ideas from Great Minds

Historically revered thinkers spread false claims that racial differences reflect different biology, genetics, and even character.

by Joy Howard

Physician Carl Linnaeus, who wrote “Systema Naturae” in 1758

For centuries, science and medicine helped create the bias that differences in appearance reflect differences in biology, genetics, and even character. Some of the earliest proponents of this so-called race science read like an all-star team of 18th century European and Colonial American Enlightenment thinkers: Voltaire, Linnaeus, Blumenbach, Jefferson, Kant.


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In 1758, Swedish physician and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus published the 10th edition of his classic work, “Systema Naturae,” hierarchically ranking and describing four varieties of the human species. While Linnaeus’ racial groups were based on geography, he also assigned them distinct personality traits, skills, and behaviors:

  • The Europeanus: white, sanguine, browny; with abundant, long hair; blue eyes; gentle, acute, inventive; covered with close vestments; and governed by laws.
  • The Americanus: red, choleric, righteous; black, straight, thick hair; stubborn, zealous, free; painting himself with red lines; and regulated by customs.
  • The Asiaticus: yellow, melancholic, stiff; black hair, dark eyes; severe, haughty, greedy; covered with loose clothing; and ruled by opinions.
  • The Afer or Africanus: black, phlegmatic, relaxed; black, frizzled hair; silky skin, flat nose, tumid lips; females without shame; mammary glands give milk abundantly; crafty, sly, lazy, cunning, lustful, careless; anoints himself with grease; and governed by caprice.

Linnaeus was a renowned Swedish scientist credited with creating the system of taxonomy still used today to identify and classify living species. Despite his legacy of legitimate scientific work, Linnaeus’ yoking of skin color with biological and behavioral characteristics provides some of the earliest and clearest evidence that racism, not biology or genetics, created race and that science has been essential in perpetuating it.