Videnskabshistorisk Selskab

Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther,
Department of Philosophy, University of California, Santa Cruz:

Wir sind alle Afrikaner:
Linnaean, Darwinian, and Genomic Stages in the History of the Biological "Race" Concept


The very concept of "Race" has a history fraught with political, ideological, and sociological complexity. By definition, a racial proper name (e.g., "African", "Han Chinese") is meant to refer to, and identify, a coherent human group. Racial classifications, rankings, and moral evaluations have been used for the most nefarious of purposes, including genocide. Here I will focus on the biological aspects and definitions of the concept, as it was deployed in the best science of the day (hence I ignore Nazi interpretations of the concept).

An examination of the history of the biological concept shows that it can be roughly categorized into three stages: Linnaean (1735 – ca. 1860s), Darwinian (1871 – ca. 1960s), and Genomic (1972 – ?).

Pre-evolutionary life science thinkers such as Linnaeus, Buffon, Blumenbach, and (the biological/anthropological) Kant were typological in the sense that they held that Homo sapiens could be classified into a small number of sub-species. The causal mechanisms, moral relevance, and future inevitability associated with their biological classifications differed among these thinkers, but they all proposed a small number of races, each with essential properties. Linnaeus was the 'trailblazer' of this stage – his Systema Naturæ (1735) suggested four races, or "varieties" of Homo sapiens: americanus, europaeus, asiaticus, and afer.

Darwin changed all of this. With Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) and especially The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), genealogy and history, variation and possibility for change, became critical. Small-scale heritable differences, physical plasticity, and adaptation to local environments, also in Homo sapiens, were now emphasized. This sort of variational thinking was central to the 20th century biological work of Franz Boas, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and Julian Huxley.

Richard Lewontin's genetic+protein study "The Apportionment of Human Diversity" (1972) is a trailblazer (though not the only one) in the genomic rebooting of the biological "race" concept. Since Lewontin's landmark investigation, numerous methods (e.g., SNPs, haplotypes, statistical procedures, and computer algorithms) have been developed to refine data analysis and classificatory inference. Today, in the human classificatory efforts of the Genomics Age, there is a focus on determining ancestry and "who exactly are you?" We follow Darwin in emphasizing patterns of human genetic variation, yet we also seem to yearn for typological ancestral essences. Who exactly are you/we? The data indicate that Homo sapiens may justifiably be classified—abstracted—in loose and highly-variable small groups, but not reified in overarching races. Yet, as indicated in an ongoing exhibition at the Neues Museum in Berlin, we are all Africans. Small globally-distributed ethnicities and a shared African heritage?? The biological concept of race (or human "group", "cluster", "population") clearly requires forward-looking rethinking.

tirsdag, den 26. oktober, kl. 17.00

Info om selskabet
In English