From Religion to The Human Genome Project: A Timeline of Scientific Racism

Sweden did not become a country until 1905, but the Scandinavian Peninsula in northern Europe was still part of Europe, and yet, Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus is not listed among the “significant people” during the Age of Enlightenment. However, those inspired by and expanded on his work, such as Immanuel Kant, are. By omission, Linnaeus, the scientist that gave us the scientific taxonomy system still used today, is exonerated for the role he played in the starting the pseudo-scientific field of race science.

In the 1500’s the world became smaller as explorers found parts of the Earth they had not known about. This gave rise to colonialism and those responsible started looking for ways to justify enslaving people different from them. This oversimplifies things, but that particular cause and effect relationship is still part of history, even as people wondered why there were people different from the Europeans. Prior to the Age of Enlightenment, people turned to the Bible to explain the differences in humans.


Biblical Literalism and Monogenism

            Biblical Literalism is an idea, that the devout still accept as Truth, that the Earth, the human race, and everything else upon the planet was created by specific acts of divine creation by an all-powerful mystical being or god. This led to monogenism, the belief that all people had common origins.

The book of Genesis tells the story of the Curse of Ham. Noah, drunk on wine from his vineyard, passes out drunk and naked where his son, Ham, finds him. Noah awakens and realizes what has happened and curses Ham’s son, Canaan. “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant” (Genesis 9:25-27)[1]. This story has been read literally, and incorrectly, since the 1600’s. Some have interpreted this to mean Noah cursed his son, Ham and not his grandson, Canaan, in order to punish his son. Later God would destroy the Canaanites for their sins. This story has been used in the United States since the 1600’s in order to justify slavery, as it was believed that the Canaanites were of darker skin as part of Canaan’s punishment.

There may be some biblical truth to this, but in order to find it, one has to look to the Apocrypha, the books not considered biblical canon, and the book of Enoch found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Enoch was the son of Canaan, so it is not surprising that it would be considered unimportant, as the Canaan and his people, the Canaanites, were cursed to slavery. The description of Noah reads, “Lamech a child has been born, who resembles not him; and whose nature is not like the nature of man. His colour is the flesh of which was white as snow, and red as a rose; the hair of whose head was white like wool, and long; and whose eyes were beautiful. When he opened them, he illuminated all the house, like the sun” (Enoch 105:10)[2]. It can be assumed, from this description, that Noah was born with albinism. Albinism is a genetically recessive trait. It would only make sense that Noah’s children would be darker than him, however we are never given any description of his wife or children. We only know that Canaan was darker and cursed to slavery.

Science would challenge monogenism starting with the Age of Enlightenment, but monogenism would persist among devout religious groups into the current day.


Race Science in The Age of Enlightenment and Beyond

In 1684, Francois Bernier published a paper titled New Division of the Earth by the Different Species or ‘Races’ of Man that Inhabit It in which he divided humans into four races based on his travels and personal experience. The first was from Europe, North America, the Middle East, India, south-east Asia and the Americas. The second encompassed the sub-Saharan Africans while the third consisted of the east and north-east Asians. Finally the fourth race was the Sámi people. He established no hierarchy of races but applied a racial misogyny to female beauty among the races that corresponded with French Salon culture. He was also willing to accept that the differences in these groups were due to climate and diet.

In 1715 Europe would enter the Age of Enlightenment and 75 years after Bernier published his paper, Carl Linnaeus would be published in the tenth edition of Systema Naturae with a classification system of every living thing on Earth as if fit into the religious belief of The Great Chain of Being where all living things are in a hierarchy created by God. We still use his taxonomy system today.

In Linnaeus’ hierarchy homo sapiens were classified into four groups, based on the groupings previously created by Bernier, europaeus, americanus, asiaticus, and afer or by the skin colours white, red, yellow, and black. Linnaeus placed the group he belonged to, europaeus, at the top. He “took the liberty to include social and personality traits alongside physical ones to further entrench racial hierarchies, and other scientists followed.”[3] These personality traits prove more problematic than the physical traits. It can be argued that adding the personality traits alongside the physical traits that people were officially stereotyped by science. This is a problem that society is still dealing with today.

Linnaeus’ hierarchy was not only an act of hubris, but an act of white supremacy that would echo through the centuries. Those groups below europaeus were seen as savages that needed to be civilized or made to be just like the Europeans. They needed to speak the same language, worship the same god, and have a European education.

French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who contributed an immense amount of research in vertebrate and invertebrate zoology and paleontology and established past existence of extinct life forms, would later propose three groups, Caucasian, Ethiopian, and Mongolian. Meanwhile, German anatomist Johan Blumenbach followed closely behind Linnaeus and added the fifth group, proposed in Cuvier’s work, the Mongolian, to Linnaeus’ list, believing that there was one group for each of the continents.

Racial categories would be debated for some time, but four ideas kept recurring: “(1) European male scientists who imposed these systems recognized difference as inferiority (2) they placed the group they believed to belong to on top based on subjective value judgements (3) conflated personality and social traits with physical ones, and (4) assumed that [dividing lines] are possible to categorize human variation”[4]. Everyone who was not European was Othered and these Others gave these scientists something to judge their own group superior by.


Darwinism, Morton’s Skulls, Eugenics, and the Challenge to Biblical Literalism

            At the same time that Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, Samuel George Morton was doing his own work to prove Johan Blumenbach’s races, anatomist Josiah Nott was challenging scriptural authority, and Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, was putting together tenuous theories on eugenics.

Josiah Nott was an abolitionist from Alabama, and the first American to enter the scientific scene on race science arguing for polygenism. His argument was that God had to do more creative acts on Day 6 than is mentioned in the bible because there was no way that white people could become black people, or vice versa, and therefore all humans could not be brothers and sisters[5]. “For the abolitionist, scriptural authority counted as evidence for the common origin of all people yet necessitated a theory of biological change to account for the facts of human diversity.”[6] The assertion that the races were created separately allowed those in favour or slavery to  argue that only those with white skin could be traced back to Adam and Eve and so the subjugation of these other races was acceptable because they were not created in God’s image.

The part of the Dead Sea Scrolls that contain the Book of Enoch were found in 1948, a hundred years after Nott presented his theories, which would have explained to him that black people can become white through albinism. The possibility of albinism in Noah’s genetic line is rarely considered as part of the defense of monogenism. It would also add some interesting discourse to the biblical justifications of slavery and racism.

At the same time Nott was debating biblical scripture with science, David Strauss published a radical text, Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus). Strass argued that the Bible was a repository of meaningful stories, or allegories, rather than actual histories. Scripture was being challenged making way for the science that would contradict it.

Darwinism, the idea that creatures could have a common ancestor, but different environments might require them to adapt radically different attributes to survive, argued survival of the fittest and that between the “high races” and “lowest savages” that white superiority was, in fact, the “fittest” on the basis of evolution.[7]

Meanwhile Samuel George Morton[8] was collecting skulls in order to prove what Johan Blumenbach had said about there being five races believing that each group of people were created for each of the continents. By the time of his death, he had amassed nearly a thousand human skulls from all over the world. He sorted his skulls by racial categories and measured them by size and volume. His collection of skulls started when he lectured on human anatomy and wanted to provide medical students with examples of skulls from each of the five races. His collection contained a bit of everything from children’s skulls to the skull of a German dwarf and they came from all over the world. Some were obtained by grave robbers, others from bones left behind by cannibals, while others were picked up off of battlefields.

Morton believed that better developed brains enlarged certain areas of the skull and that the “internal capacity [of the skull] was indicative of the size of the brain” and then argued that superior races had bigger brains.[9]  Naturally, he found Caucasians had larger skulls, and therefore larger brains, backing up Darwin’s idea of white evolutionary superiority.

Francis Galton suggested that races “propagate their types” and differ in character, intellect, colour, and shape. He measured the “worth of races” and established a racial hierarchy based on intelligence and his social prejudices became scientific ones. This led to his promotion of how selective breeding could be used to give more suitable races a better chance of prevailing. The idea of eugenics would be picked up later by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.

One question would remain in the minds of these men, and other scientists of the time such as Thomas Huxley who documented the close relationship between human and ape and Charles Lyell who documented the coexistence of ancient people and extinct species. Why are there still savages?[10]  Ernst Haeckel, a German Darwinian, explained that “civilized and savage peoples were zoologically distinct species, and the savage species were closer to the apes.”[11] In 1871 E.B. Tylor came up with a reasonable explanation. There were still savages because of cultural evolution. He considered the savage culture inferior but maintained it was still a culture. This not only humanized these “savages” but exoticized them.


Race is a Social Construct

None of these ideas were 100% correct but they each added something to the conversation and brought about scientific racism, and ideas that would never quite go away. Scientific racism has perpetrated myths about blacks such as they do not feel pain and are better at sports. It is still believed that persons of colour are not as smart as white people, and that standardized testing in schools confirms this, “just as skin and eye colour, hair texture, and some anatomical features are genetically transmitted ‘racial’ characteristics, different levels of ability to perform certain mental tasks must somehow be genetically transmitted as well” (Hudson 3). These tests are a reflection of society in what students are taught, how good a school is, or how white students and students of colour are taught and treated differently.

In 1990 science set out to map the human genome. Two scientists, Francis Collins and Craig Venter declared there was no scientific or genetic basis for race and in 2016 there was a movement to take race out of genetic research as all humans share 99.9% of the same DNA. The Human Genome Project has proven that race is a social construct, a way to put people in boxes in order to decide who gets what out of the resource pool.

Acknowledging that race is a social construct puts recreational genetic businesses like 23 and Me at a disadvantage. People want to know where they came from, but these genetic labs put people into similar categories as the five races of Johan Blumenbach, African, European, Asian, Oceania, and Native American by examining around 1% of the DNA[12]. To some extent these tests continue to promote scientific racism as white supremists use them to prove their “pure” white linage, where there is no such thing as a pure race. Science has disproven scientific racism, and yet, the idea still persists because these ideas have been so ingrained into society for over 500 years. It is probably going to take us, as a society, that same amount of time to undo it.


[1] KJV Deluxe Gift Bible. Harper Collins Christian Publishing. 2016

[2] The Book of Enoch.

[3] Hussein Mohsen. Race and Genetics: Somber History. Troubled Present Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 2020 p.216

[4] Hussein Mohsen. Race and Genetics: Somber History. Troubled Present Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 2020 p.219

[5] Johnathan Marks. The Coevolution of Human Origins, Human variation, and Their Meaning in the Nineteenth Century. Zygon, vol 54. No 1 2019 p. 247

[6] Johnathan Marks. The Coevolution of Human Origins, Human variation, and Their Meaning in the Nineteenth Century. Zygon, vol 54. No 1 2019 p.247

[7] Charles Darwin. On The Origin of Species. Pennsylvania. Penn State University 2001 pp. 38, 306

[8] Ann Fabian. The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. 2010

[9] Ann Fabian. The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. 2010  p16

[10] Johnathan Marks. The Coevolution of Human Origins, Human variation, and Their Meaning in the Nineteenth Century. Zygon, vol 54. No 1 2019 p. 248

[11] Johnathan Marks. The Coevolution of Human Origins, Human variation, and Their Meaning in the Nineteenth Century. Zygon, vol 54. No 1 2019 p. 249

[12] Vivian Chou. How Science and Genetics are Reshaping the Race Debate in the 21st Century. Science in the News. Harvard University. 2017

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