Day Meeting: Linnaeus, Race and Sex

Organiser: Linnean events


Two women gathering fruit, Stephen Slaughter, 1750
Two women gathering fruit, Stephen Slaughter, 1750

Many of Linnaeus’s contributions to the natural sciences are well-known and rightly celebrated. But a full assessment of his legacy must also include investigation into more uncomfortable areas, too. This Day Meeting will bring together researchers from different disciplines (natural sciences, evolutionary biology, philosophy, history of science and gender studies) to discuss ‘race’ and ‘sex’ in Linnaeus’ work and beyond. Placing these aspects of Linnaeus’s work in their appropriate scientific and historical contexts, speakers will discuss their influence in the social and cultural context of contemporary debates on the history of the idea of ‘race’ and decolonial approaches to natural history and on sex and gender in science. Was Linnaeus a racist? Is he the father of modern scientific racism? Did his ‘sexual system’ shore up a conservative and sexist view of gender relations? The audience is invited to discuss these and other questions with a distinguished panel of speakers: Malin Ah-King, Patricia Fara, Miranda Lowe, Staffan Müller-Wille, Stella Sandford and Josias Tembo.


(Speaker and topics below)

10.00–10.05 Welcome and practical information

10.20-10.50 Stella Sandford (Linnaeus, 'Sex' and 'Race')

10.50–11.10 Discussion

11.10–11.30 BREAK

11.30–12.00 Staffan Müller-Wille (‘Human Diversity from Linnaeus’s Point of View’)

12.00–12.30 Josias Tembo (‘Linnaeus between the concept of race and geography’)

12.30-13.00 Discussion

13.00–14.00 LUNCH BREAK

14.00–14.30 Patricia Fara (Sexual Politics: Erasmus Darwin and The Loves of the Plants’)

14.30–15.00 Malin Ah-King (Sex and sexuality from an evolutionary perspective’)

15.00–15.30 Discussion

Speakers and abstracts

Malin Ah King
Malin Ah King

‘Sex and sexuality from an evolutionary perspective’

Beginning with a gender analysis of Linnaeus’s works on sex and sexuality, this paper then provides a contemporary critical perspective on sex and sexuality from an evolutionary point of view. It is common to refer to all sorts of clear-cut differences between the sexes as something that is biologically almost inevitable – biological sex is often assumed to be static and binary. Yet, the last decades of biological research have revealed an extensive variability in sex and “sex roles” among animals. Many animals regularly change sex, sex determination can be temperature-dependent or affected by the social environment, and sexual behavior is flexibly adjusted to individual circumstances. To get away from thinking about biological sex and traits associated with a particular sex as something static, it should be recognised that from an evolutionary perspective sex is dynamic – in individual lives due to environmental and social influences as well as over evolutionary time.

Malin Ah-King is an Associate Professor in Gender Studies at the department of Ethnology, History of Religions and Gender Studies, Stockholm University, Sweden. She is an evolutionary biologist (PhD) and gender researcher focusing on feminist science studies of contemporary evolutionary biology. She has studied how perceptions about females have shifted in sexual selection research and is currently studying the ontological controversy about sex differences in evolutionary biology. She has published numerous scholarly articles and chapters in biology as well as gender studies journals/books. Personal webpage:

Patricia Fara
Patricia Fara

‘Sexual Politics: Erasmus Darwin and The Loves of the Plants

Carl Linnaeus’s classification of plants now seems so familiar that it feels intuitively right, but it is based on arbitrary criteria, incorporates the prejudices of Enlightenment Christian moralists, and had many critics. In Britain, the over-riding objection was that it put sex right at the heart of botany, thus making it unsuitable for women. In The Loves of the Plants (1791), the Midlands physician Erasmus Darwin claimed to ‘inlist Imagination under the banner of Science’ by anthropomorphising Linnean botany and explaining it in simple terms. Often dismissed by modern critics for its light-hearted flirtatiousness, this long poem was extremely popular and was picked out for satirical attack by establishment critics concerned about the political implications of new scientific ideas.

Patricia Fara is an Emeritus Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, and former President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18). She is particularly interested in the Enlightenment, scientific imagery and women in science, both past and present. A regular contributor to In our Time and other radio/TV programmes, she has published a range of popular books on the history of science, including the prize-winning Science: A Four Thousand Year History (2009) and, most recently, Life after Gravity: Isaac Newton’s London Career(2021). Of particular relevance to this talk are: Sex, Botany and Empire: The Stories of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks (2003, 2017); Pandora's Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment (2004); and Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science and Serendipity (2012, 2019).

Staffan Müller-Wille
Staffan Müller-Wille

‘Human Diversity from Linnaeus’s Point of View’

There is no doubt that Carl Linnaeus laid the foundations of scientific racism by proposing a universal classification of humankind by skin colour and geographic origin in his System of Nature in 1735. But what do we know about the interests and motivations that led him to do so? What did the world look like for him, and what place did humans, in their diversity, occupy in it? I am going to answer these questions by following Linnaeus’s evolving views about human diversity, his increasing tendency to rank human varieties according to their alleged cultural and political achievements, but also his increasing fascination with the environmental and cultural malleability of humans, and with the possibility that two human species might coexist on this planet. Linnaeus, I will argue, does not easily fit into the foil of a modern scientific racist; he did not try to legitimate white supremacy from the privileged position of a metropolitan scientist, but rather presented a view of humanity from his own distinctly parochial vantage point.

Staffan Müller-Wille is University Lecturer in the History of Life, Human and Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge. His research covers the history of the life sciences from the early modern period to the early twentieth century, with a focus on the history of natural history, anthropology, and genetics. Among recent publications is a book co-authored with Hans-Jörg Rheinberger on The Gene: From Genetics to Postgenomics (2018) and two co-edited collections on Human Heredity in the Twentieth Century (2013) and Heredity Explored: Between Public Domain and Experimental Science, 1850–1930 (2016).

Stella Sandford
Stella Sandford

Linnaeus, ‘Sex’ and ‘Race’

For better or worse, Linnaeus’s work is frequently associated with the concepts of ‘sex’ and ‘race’, because of his (in)famous sexual system of botanical classification and equally (in)famous classification of ‘racial’ human types in his System of Nature. This talk will introduce the themes of the Day Meeting by discussing the different histories of these two concepts – ‘sex’ and ‘race’ – and some of the recent controversies surrounding Linneaus’s relation to them. It will ask: when was the ‘scientific’ concept of ‘race’ invented and by whom? Is it possible to trace a similar kind of history for the concept of ‘sex’? How is Linnaeus implicated in these histories? And how is natural history more generally implicated in the social and political destinies of these concepts today?

Stella Sandford is Professor in the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University, London. Her research focusses on critical philosophies of sex and gender and critical philosophies of race (where she has published widely), with a recent concentration on the relation between the history of philosophy and the history of natural history. Her books include Plato and Sex (2010) and How to Read Beauvoir (2006). She is currently a Leverhulme Major Research Fellow with a project on Sex Difference in Natural History, with a forthcoming book entitled Vegetal Sex.

Josias Tembo
Josias Tembo

‘Linnaeus between the concept of race and geography’

In this paper, I reflect on the relationship between the concept of race and geography in Carl Linnaeus’ expressions, and in the emerging science of race during Linnaeus’s time. In studies of what constitute racial expressions and racist practices, the relationship between the concepts of race and geography has played at least two important roles. The first role is the interpretation of geography as purely environmental in our understanding of racial expressions and racist practices by defining the concept of race as environmental variations of the same human species. We find this minimalist understanding of the relationship between the concept of race and geography in Staffan Müller-Wille’s reading of Linnaeus’ classification of races of man in relation to geography. The second is the interpretation of geography as a constructed site of human hierarchical differentiation that we find in the work of Sylvia Wynter on the geographical construction of Africa and the Americas. This understanding of geography as a technology of hierarchical differentiation of human groups and their locales in the production of racial expressions and racist practices defines the concept of race as a technology of hierarchical differentiation. In this talk I will contest the minimalist reading of the concept of race and geography in Linneaus’ work, by reflecting on the context in which Linnaeus and his contemporaries inherited these geographical categories: two centuries of Western Europeans’ construction of their geographical, racialized others.

Josias Tembo is a PhD researcher in ethics and political philosophy and race religion research project at Radboud University in Nijmegen Netherlands. His Ph.D. research is on the trans-Atlantic constellations of race and religion. His research interest is in postcolonial political theory, critical philosophy of race and African philosophy. He is also a Research Associate at the University of Pretoria in the department of philosophy. His most recent work is: Tembo, Josias. “Hegel’s Lord–Bondsman Dialectic and the African: A Critical Appraisal of Achille Mbembe’s Colonial Subjects.” Violence, Slavery and Freedom between Hegel and Fanon, edited by Ulrike Kistner and Philippe Van Haute (2020).

This event will take place online using Zoom webinar.

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