The death of George Floyd is having wide-ranging impacts, not just in the US but around the world. It has affected institutions and parts of society which previously believed themselves immune to, or at least removed from, racism.
In my recent work on biological classification, I have been struck by how frequently science has been misused to reinforce existing prejudice. And alarmingly, although most overt racial science has been consigned to history, an inherent human obsession with biological classification has left a pervasive, ugly legacy: many people still believe some “races” to be more primitive than, or inferior to, others. I explore zoology’s history, warts and all, in my latest book, How Zoologists Organize Things.
Humans seem driven to classify and organize, and the diversity of animal life around us serves as a perfect outlet for that urge. A particularly malign influence arose with the development in the Middle Ages of the scala naturae, a seemingly innocuous attempt to classify the natural (and theological) world according to a simple graduated system. In the early 14th century, the Majorcan philosopher Ramon Llull wrote Ladder of Ascent and Descent of the Mind, in which the elements of creation are allocated to steps on a staircase starting with minerals, then ascending through fire, plants, beasts, men, sky, and angels, ultimately overseen by God.
Harmless as they may seem, the scalae implied a hierarchy of inherent value among natural things. These classifications of nature became progressively more complex, and with that complexity came a veneer of scientific authority, as in Charles Bonnet’s 1745 Notion of a Scale of Living Beings.
As the 19th century started, these value-laden worldviews collided with new ways of thinking in biology—especially the idea that humans could be analyzed and classified in the same way as other animals. To be sure, there have been several species of humans in Earth’s history, and science does classify these hominins based in part on physical characteristics, but early researchers took this idea too far by applying it to modern humans within the species Homo sapiens. For example, Charles White, in his disturbing 1799 book An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man and in Different Animals and Vegetables, ranks animals and people according to the verticality of their facial profile, from snipe and crocodiles to dogs and orangutans, and from “negroes,” “American savages,” and “Asiatics” to Europeans.
During the first half of the 19th century, many zoologists’ minds turned toward the idea that animal types—and by extension, human types—could change and diverge over long periods of time. Yet this often meant the old hierarchy of nature simply transformed into a concept of evolutionary “progress” toward ever more perfect beings. And this carried the implication that some of those beings, human and animal, had been left behind in a primitive state.
One of the strangest examples of this distortion of evolutionary theory was polygenism, an idea espoused by the pro-slavery scion of the American School of Ethnology, Josiah Nott. Although he disliked the concept of evolution, Nott, in his 1854 Types of Mankind, cherry-picked the ideas he needed to claim that the “human races” are distinct species with origins in different animal groups. Nott claimed the evidence showed that white men were justified in dominating Black men, whose attributes render them the perfect slaves.
The respected German über-Darwinist Ernst Haeckel perpetuated the myth of evolutionary progress when he claimed influentially that Judaism is an evolutionary intermediate between primitive paganism and advanced Christianity, and when he asserted that non-Europeans are “physiologically nearer to the mammals—apes and dogs—than to the civilized European. We must, therefore, assign a totally different value to their lives.”
Zoology must fight hard to decontaminate itself from the value judgments and skewed arguments of the past. Already, we no longer speak of animals as primitive or advanced, and those concepts have become meaningless in the context of humans too. Additionally, the human species is no longer considered to be gouped into a number of discrete races, but rather an array of populations, each adapted to its ancestral geographical environment, yet blurring genetically and culturally into its neighbors.
Humans have been the most widespread mammalian species for some time, so it is no surprise that we have ended up diverse. Yet it has taken a depressingly long time for scientists to state explicitly that this variation is messy and overlapping, and did not evolve to suit our prejudices.
David Bainbridge is a reproductive biologist and veterinary anatomist at the University of Cambridge. Read an excerpt of How Zoologists Organize Things.