SATNAV and BME Magazine have collaborated for an article swap! Here, Ayesha Hashim discusses the Human Taxonomy and the Consequences of Subjective Science
Most would agree that taxonomy, the practice of classifying living creatures based on shared characteristics, is not inherently a morally objectionable, or otherwise ‘bad’, thing. In biology, it forms the organisational basis for the detailed study and analysis of organisms. Taxonomy isn’t by any means a new practice: evidence of wall paintings from circa 1500 B.C. depicting plants implies the use of basic taxonomies; the creation of animal groupings such as vertebrates/invertebrates and sharks/cetaceans can be traced back to Aristotle; the Middle Ages oversaw the infusion of logical and philosophical thought into organism categorisation (re: The Great Chain of Being). Thus, it wouldn’t be incorrect to see taxonomy as the inevitable manifestation of the human need to rationalise, to analyse, to dissect, our environment.
Carl Linnaeus’ system of biological classification is an invaluable hierarchical system, whose categories form the basis of classification today. However, its perversion lent itself to the creation of a distinct hierarchical system for humans across Britain and North America, which is certainly morally objectionable. During the 18th century, thinkers such as Voltaire and Blumenbach matched phenotypical characteristics (facial features, build, skin colour) with unscientific descriptions of intelligence and character in order to justify the institution of white supremacy.
Furthermore, Philadelphian physician Samuel Morton went on to make unfounded conclusions about cognitive capacity based on skull measurements across different ethnic groups—this capitalised on the misconception that brain size correlates with intelligence. Meanwhile, anthropometry, which involved meticulously collecting the body measurements of military conscripts and those in the navy and marines, was used to calculate effectively meaningless averages. These relied on the false assumptions that such measurements do not vary from generation to generation, and are not subject to factors such as diet and wealth.
Arguably the most profoundly devastating consequence of the human taxonomy system was the establishment of eugenics. This went on to give segregation a toxic ‘scientific’ legitimacy via the Nuremberg Laws in Germany, and the South African apartheid era.
The inexcusability of these developments is obvious, but the rationale behind them is disturbingly coherent: it appeared to be the only way to justify a prosperous western society built on the labours of African slaves, and to continue to reap the benefits of slave ownership. Genetic studies in the ‘70s were partly conducted in the spirit of proving racial superiority/inferiority against a backdrop of liberal empowerment, minorities gaining political rights and socio-economic status, and a redefinition of race rooted in cultural, geographic and linguistic similarity—factors that were perceived as destabilising. Today, the ‘alt-right’ demographic in the west largely constitutes poorly educated, socio-economically marginalised males who cling onto the ‘science’ of white supremacy. The pattern of self-preservation is clear, and the tragedy rooted in the sacrifices made for it does not go unnoticed.
The abuse of scientific practice involved in the creation of the human taxonomy system helped to offset the mistreatment of racial minorities that darkens the pages of our history books today. Whilst the crux of our focus tends to be on social issues of injustice and discrimination (and rightly so), their horrific roots in scientific practice in the wrong hands, under the wrong circumstances, under the wrong mindset, shouldn’t be dismissed. Perhaps in the current climate, where falsified information of any kind can generate profit, and incendiary ideas become social media trailblazers, it deserves particular attention.
From Issue 15