Linnaeus and Race (easy read)

Carl Linnaeus is famous for his pioneering work in the science of identifying, naming and classifying nature. However, it is also important to recognise his role in the origins of modern scientific racism.

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What is scientific racism?

Racism is treating someone differently or worse because they belong to a particular ethnic group, usually a group which is a minority or has less power.

Scientific racism is the use of 'science' to offer reasons why racism is justified.

Scientific racism can have devastating and far-reaching consequences for humanity, including seeing non-Europeans as less human than Europeans, and justifying the use of slavery and genocide (the killing of entire populations).

Linnaeus starts his work

In 1735, when Linnaeus was 28, he published the first edition of his most famous work - the Systema Naturae (Systems of Nature). In this publication, he divided the living world into three kingdoms: animal, plant and mineral.

Linnaeus was the first naturalist to include humans within the animal kingdom - before that, humans were seen as separate to the animal kingdom - some people believed that God created humans as higher beings, and that animals were created simply for humans to use. Linnaeus challenged these people to name a real bodily difference between man and ape, and so he inserted humans into the same group as Mammals and Primates.

'Systema Naturae' 1740 Quadrupedia

Systema Naturae was published 12 times during Linnaeus’ life. Each edition included new information, and grew bigger and broader. For the first nine editions (1735-1756), Linnaeus’ classification of humans remained the same, with the human species divided into four "varieties" —

  • Europaeus albus: European white
  • Americanus rubescens: American reddish
  • Asiaticus fuscus: Asian tawny
  • Africanus niger: African black

Linnaeus’ four varieties of human corresponded to the four continents of the world (known at the time): Europe, America, Asia and Africa.

Linnaeus used the term 'sub-species' in other animal groups, but for humans he chose the word "varieties". To Linnaeus, it was clear that there was one human species which varied in appearance based on their climate and environment. In these first nine editions, Linnaeus focuses entirely on geography, sharing modern views that skin-colour is largely a product of climate - an accidental, external factor.

The 10th Edition, 1758

In 1758, when Linnaeus was 51, he published the 10th edition of Systema Nature in which he added more detail to the four varieties of human.

Whereas the previous editions classified humans within four quick lines, the 10th edition devoted five whole pages. Linnaeus added notes on the four varieties, describing the following attributes:

  1. Skin colour, medical temperament (corresponding to the four medieval humors), and body posture;
  2. Physical traits relating to hair colour and form, eye colour, and distinctive facial traits;
  3. Behaviour;
  4. Manner of clothing;
  5. Form of government.
AmericanusRed, choleric (bad-tempered), straightStraight, black and thick hair; gaping nostrils; freckled face; beardless chinUnyielding, cheerful, freePaints himself in a maze of red linesGoverned by traditional practices
EuropaeusWhite, sanguine (cheerful), muscularPlenty of yellow hair; blue eyesLight, wise, inventorProtected by tight clothingGoverned by religion
AsiaticusSallow, melancholic (sad), stiffBlackish hair, dark eyesStern, haughty, greedyProtected by loose garmentsGoverned by opinions
AfricanusBlack, phlegmatic (unemotional), lazyDark hair, with many twisting braids; silky skin; flat nose; swollen lips; Further descriptions of sexual characteristicsSly, sluggish, neglectfulAnoints himself with fatGoverned by choice

Please note these have been edited from the original version for clarity.

Linnaeus also added two other varieties: Ferus (wild children and youngsters) and Monstrosus (groups shaped by their extreme environment (e.g. Alpini who live high in the mountains).

Over the years, Linnaeus moved the order of the varieties around, but the Africanus variety consistently remained at the bottom of the list. In all editions, Linnaeus’ descriptions of Africanus were the longest, most detailed and physical, and also the most derogatory. Linnaeus’ hierarchy, with black people at the very bottom, associated with negative moral and physical attributes, stuck.


Scientific racism is the use of science to offer reasons why racism is justified. In his 10th edition of Systema Naturae, Linnaeus indicates that each variety of human has defined traits, some positive and some negative. Linnaeus created personality types for entire populations, which would impact how others would understand and interact with these people. Linnaeus was a central figure in natural science at the time, and his work held considerable weight to other scholars at the time.

Believing that other populations hold inferior traits to your own is the starting point of many genocidal stories, and so it is undeniable that this work by Linnaeus was a dangerous tool for future generations to build on. Another factor was mis-translation: Linnaeus wrote in Latin primarily, and when translated into English in 1792, Linnaeus' "varieties" became "sub-species" indicating a stronger difference between ethnic groups.

Why Linnaeus changed his descriptions of human varieties from purely geographical to characteristics is unclear and requires further research.

There are notes that Linnaeus wrote between 1748 and 1758 that show Linnaeus making changes and crossing out sentences and words which indicate his changing opinions. It is also known that Linnaeus was an avid reader of other people's work through this period which may have influenced his ideas.

Discover more about Linnaeus