Tag Archives: linne

race gravure

When I was a schoolboy and too young to know better than to ask foolish questions, I wondered why I, with my ruddy pink skin, was called ”White” and why Charlie Johnson, with chocolate skin, was called ”Black.”

What I saw around me was a huge variety of skin color, from the pasty Irish winter skin to the darkest African blue-black. There weren’t two colors, but thousands.

It was one of those cultural inconsistencies that sometimes bother children, but that adults seldom seem to puzzle over. I now recognize that it is as if a linguistic pattern were cast over reality, taking its place, so that we see words and not skin.

The question of race has followed me into adulthood, as I see people argue back and forth, usually at cross purposes, without ever having stopped to ask themselves, ”What is race?”

If they took time to define what they mean, they might have a better chance of making themselves understood.

For race isn’t one self-contained category; we mean many things by it, and sometimes contradictory things.

It would help if we could tease out some of the strands of the knotty problem.

The problem of definition began with the 18th century European obsession with taxonomy. They wanted to name everything. Europaeid types

While it had been recognized for millennia that there were distinctive population groups in the world — The Greeks knew their Ethiopians, Shakespeare knew his Othello was a Moor — it is only during the Enlightenment that anyone tried to pin the variations down to uniform categories.

Race as a scientific idea began with the Swede Carl Linne, who devised an ingenious system for classifying animals and plants by morphology. He devised a system of phyla, orders, families and genera that worked its way down to species and, occasionally, subspecies.

A dog is Canis familiaris, a swamp rose is Rosa palustris. Humans are Homo sapiens.

Linne further divided humans into four ”races,” or subspecies, which he named H. sapiens americanus, europaeus, asiaticus and afer. These, he said, were red, White, yellow and Black. He also defined them by personality and culture.

H. sapiens europaeus, for instance, ”wears tight-fitting clothes” and is ”nimble, of the keenest mind, innovator.” H. sapiens afer, however, are ”cunning, lazy, careless,” and they ”smear self with fat.” Guess which race Linne considered himself to be.

American Indians, by this system, are cheerful and resolute, and Asians are proud and greedy. It should be noted that Linne didn’t get to travel much; it was the 18th century, and what he knew of other peoples was largely peculiar hearsay.

The confusion of race and behavior continues. I remember one White minister in Greensboro, N.C., who announced that his ministry was to aid ”the alcoholic, the drug addict and the Negro.”

Later biologists narrowed the races to three, eliding the red and yellow races, and they called the three Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid. Then others, noting the number of population groups that could not easily fit into these three classes — Polynesians, for instance, or Australian aborigines — came up with newer and more distinct races and sub-races. The number proliferated to the point that there were nearly as many races as there were people, and race as a useful scientific classification evaporated.


Most scientists now discount the idea of race; you will be hard pressed to find the term used in any modern text.

The initial idea was that genetic ”types” exist in regional populations. The problem is that there is more variation between individuals within each group than there is between the groups themselves. Dravidian Caucasoids may very well be darker of skin than Nilotic Negroids.

As a biological concept, race was a convenient but misleading shorthand, made nonsense after a deeper look at the facts. race types

And the very distinctions made between populations — skin color, nose shape, resistance to malaria, lactose tolerance, etc. — are not distributed uniformly through the so-called races. The characteristics are likely to be distributed regionally, but the regions are multifarious and overlapping, not monolithic and co-equal.

It is a very few people who have all the many characteristics used to define a ”Negroid” or ”Caucasoid.” There are dark-skinned Caucasoids and straight-haired Negroids.

It makes even less sense in America, where the variations are no longer regional, and the bloodlines are no longer separate.

Yet, the notion of race persists. It is this nation’s most intractable social problem. If it is not biological, what is it?

Even before science took over the idea, race was a short word for ”bloodline.” Each family, insofar as it can be distinguished from its neighbors, is the culmination of a race. In Wagner’s version of Germanic myth, for instance, there is the race of Wolsungs, the race of Gibichungs, the race of Niebelungs.

I come from a race of Nilsens, although I can only trace it back a handful of generations, and there is no eponymous hero at its source.

But that is not what most Americans mean when they evoke the word ”race.”

In this country, with its peculiar history, race most immediately means skin color.

Yet the distinction is the least useful. If you took all the peoples of the world and lined them up, not as in an old grammar school photograph, by height, but by skin shade, you would not find any distinct breaks, but a continuous spectrum of color: a wash, not a palette. average female face

In the U.S., we have an artificial sampling of skin color. It is as if a dollop of red from one end of the spectrum were plopped down square on the blue end. The colors seem distinct and different, but this is a historical accident, not a true picture of racial difference.

While skin color is the most obvious racial marker, the most important is culture. People brought here from Africa had a different culture from those who came here from Europe.

The cultures have blended together quite a bit, yet it is astonishing how conservative culture is. Cultural forms can be maintained over centuries without anyone really thinking about it. Why does a wooden church in New England so often have the pointed arch of a Gothic stone cathedral? It makes no sense in wood.

We enter our jet planes from the left side, just as we mounted our horses. We let our children play with ”choo-choo trains,” despite the fact that their grandparents were likely the last in their race to have ever seen a steam locomotive.

When I visited South Africa, I was astonished to find it seemed so much like the North Carolina I had lived in for 20 years. I saw an old Black man in a worn blue suit and no shoes, waiting in front of a wooden store/service station for a ride. He could have been from Hobgood, N.C.

I heard a choir of cleaning women singing as they worked, and I recognized in the tone of their voices Ma Rainey and Aretha Franklin.

It is often these cultural differences that we use to separate the races in the U.S. — Rap vs. bluegrass; basketball vs. hockey, grape soda vs. root beer.

We feel comfortable with our own way of doing things, suspicious of other ways. There is considerable xenophobia in our racial attitudes.

Another important facet of what we call race is more accurately called class.

The reaction of many well-to-do Whites to poor Blacks is not much different from their reaction to poor Whites. “Trailer trash,” they call them. One remembers that in the 19th century, when there was so much prejudice against Irish working-class immigrants to the U.S., there were attempts to prove that the Irish were little different from African slaves. Irish negroes

Poor people are seen to have different work ethics, different hygiene patterns, different cultural ideals. That so many more Blacks than Whites, by percentage, are poor, leads to a bleeding of one attitude into another. Much of what is ascribed to African-Americans by their White neighbors is class consciousness, not simple racism.

Both are pernicious, but the two become confused in argument.


Then, too, race has become politics. And by politics, I mean power.

Political leaders speak as if they mean to ameliorate the problems of society, but the main goal of politics is power, its acquisition and maintenance. Those in power don’t want to give it up, those disenfranchised want to get it. When they can use race, from either side, they will.

This is used by both sides: White politicians have a glossary of code words that warn their voters that Blacks will take their jobs and their women. The privileged mean to prevent the dispossessed from getting power.

But the Black politician often complains about a Black conservative that he is somehow turning his back on the ”solidarity,” which is needed to gain power. Voter blocks on each side line up to scrimmage at the poll.

If a demonstration of the political definition of race were needed, one only has to consider the concept of ”race mixing,” seen in two different contexts.

Consider these two political systems and their apportionment of political power. In South Africa under apartheid, the admixture of White blood and Black ”ennobled” and made a new category, ”Colored,” above Black and not far under White and with most of the rights of Whites, whereas in the old U.S., a percentage of Black blood mixed with White ”degraded” and created a Black person and the lack of rights that came with the color.

It is an odd system indeed that forces Mariah Carey or Halle Berry into the category, “Black woman.” And how we scratch our heads over the categorization of Tiger Wood. trio

Nor can we forget history when we talk of race. The United States cannot escape the evils of its own past. Whites would like to forget slavery: ”That was a long time ago. I never owned any slaves,” they say. They seem to have no sense of history (unless it’s the Southern White’s sense of grievance about the Civil War.)

But Black Americans cannot avoid the burden of history. It is brought home to them every day. They cannot forget that they arrived on this continent under protest. They cannot forget that they were once legally less than fully human.

They cannot help seeing the vestiges of that past, even when such vestiges are invisible to Whites. What they call ”racism,” is often just the comet-tail of history, still affecting the course of events.

There are still more facets of race: linguistic usage, self-image, marketing. In one sense, race has turned from being a caste marker and into a demographic group.

So, when we open a dialogue on race, as the president has asked, we need to try to be clear about what we mean, and not address skin color when we mean class, not argue over culture, when it’s politics we are concerned with.

I don’t have the solutions to America’s race problems, but I am certain that unless we begin by defining what we mean by race, by beginning with the simplest questions, we will continue to repeat ourselves over and over until we are neither Black nor White, but are merely blue in the face.

fibonacci in blue

Too often, we take what we hear at face value. Facts turn out not to be facts. No one changed your family’s name at Ellis Island. Didn’t happen.

These are not just myths, they are just things that sound like they could be true and so become embedded in our midden of common knowledge. No, Eskimos do not have 30 or 43, or 90 words for “snow.” Human beings do not use merely 10 percent of their brains.

This is all stuff for the Cliff Clavins of the world.

Sometimes this stuff gets caught in our mental wheel spokes because we simply don’t look closely enough.

Take the Fibonacci series. We are told that this interesting pattern of numbers governs much of what appears in nature, including the spiral patters we see everywhere from whelk shells to spiral galaxies. The problem is, observation does not support this idea, at least not as it is usually presented.

The series is created by starting with a zero and a 1 and adding them together, and continues by adding each new number with the previous, making the series: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc. The series has many interesting properties, one of which is the generation of the so-called “Golden Section.”

To the Greeks, the golden section was the ratio ”AB is to BC as BC is to AC.” It also generates the Fibonacci series and is said to define how nature makes spirals.

golden overlap

Look at the end of a whelk shell, they say, or the longitudinal section of a nautilus shell, and you will see the Fibonacci series in action.


Yet it is not actually true. When you look at whelks, you find spirals and the Fibonacci series creates a spiral, but the two spirals are quite different: the mathematical spiral opens up much more rapidly. The shellfish has a tighter coil. The whelk’s spiral makes roughly two turns for every turn the Fibonacci spiral makes. Math is precise, but nature is various.

fibonacci whelk

What I am most interested in here is not just the agon of conflicting beliefs, but rather the faith in mathematics, and the sense that math describes, or rather, underpins the organization of the world.

I cannot help thinking, in contrast, that these patterns are something not so much inherent in Creation, as cast out from our brains like a fishing net over the many fish in the universe.

Take any large string of events, items or tendencies, and the brain will organize them and throw a story around them, creating order even where none exists.

Consider the night sky, for instance, a rattling jostle of burning pinpoints. We find in that chaos the images of bears and serpents, lions and bulls. Even those who no longer can find the shape of a great bear can spot the Big Dipper. The outline seems drawn in the sky with stars, yet the constellations have no actual existence outside the order-creating human mind.

Ursa major

Our own lives — which are a complex tangle of events, conflicting emotions and motives — are too prodigal to fit into a single coherent narrative, even the size of a Russian novel. Yet we do so all the time, creating a sense of self as if we were writing autobiographies and giving our lives a narrative shape that makes them meaningful to us.

We usually believe the narrative version of our lives actually exists. Yet all of us could write an entirely different story by stringing events together with a different emphasis.

The question always arises: Are the patterns actually there in life and nature, or do we create them in our heads and cast them like a net over reality?

The issue is central to a brilliant movie made in 1998 by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky called Pi. In the film, a misfit math genius is searching for the mathematical organizing principle of the cosmos.

His working hypotheses are simple:

”One: Mathematics is the language of nature.

”Two: Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers.

”Three: If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge.

”Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature.”

Pi movie scene 3

The movie’s protagonist nearly drives himself nuts with his search until he cannot bear his own obsession anymore.

But the film also questions in a roundabout way whether the patterns exist or not.

When different number series — each 216 digits long — seem to be important, an older colleague warns our hero that, once you begin looking for a pattern, it seems to be everywhere.

It’s like when you buy a yellow Volkswagen and suddenly every other car on the road is immediately a yellow VW. Nothing has changed but your perception.

Mathematicians find patterns in nature, yet math itself is purely self-referential. It can only describe itself.

As mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russell put it: ”Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about nor whether what we are saying is true.”

In other words, ”one plus one equals two” is no different from saying ”a whale is not a fish.” You have only spoken within a closed system. ”A whale is not a fish” tells us nothing about whales but a lot about our language.

It is a description of linguistic categories, rather less an observational statement about existence. Biology can be organized as a system of knowledge to make the sentence false — indeed, at other times in history a whale was a fish.

Before Carl Linne, who created the modern biological nomenclatural system, there were many ways of organizing biology. In his popular History of the Earth and Animated Nature, from 1774 and reprinted well into the 19th century, Oliver Goldsmith divided the fish into “spinous fishes,” “cartilaginous fishes,” “testaceous and crustaceous fishes” and “cetaceous fishes.” A mackerel, a sand dollar and Moby Dick were all kinds of fish.

Plate from Goldsmith's "Animated Nature"

Plate from Goldsmith’s “Animated Nature”

Let’s face it, although the Linnaean system is useful, it is kind of arbitrary to organize nature not by its shapes, or where it lives, but rather how it gives birth or breathes.

”One plus one” likewise describes the system in which the equation is true.

It is possible to cast other patterns over reality. For instance, artists understand perfectly well how ”one plus one equals three.”

That is, there is the one thing, the other thing and then the two together: one sock, the other sock, and the pair of socks. That is three things.

Three things

Three things


In art, we constantly put one object up against another object and observe the interaction between them. In that sense, one plus one can equal three.

When mathematicians say that numbers describe the world, they are speaking metaphorically. Numbers do not, in fact, describe the world. The patterns of numbers seem to mimic the patterns we discern in nature and bear an analogical relation to them.

The fact that this seems to happen so often may be little more than the yellow VW effect.

For experience is large and contains multitudes, even infinities. In any very large set, patterns can be found.

That is the trick behind numerology. If the name Ronald Wilson Reagan can be turned numerologically into the symbol for Satan because each of his names has six letters, making the “666” or “mark of the beast” from the book of Revelations, well, looked at another way, it can be turned into a recipe for Cobb salad. All it takes is a system ingenious enough to do it.

Our hero in Pi believes in the Fibonacci spiral: ”My new hypothesis: If we’re built from spirals while living in a giant spiral, then is it possible that everything we put our hands to is infused with the spiral?”

He begins to sound more and more paranoid.

And paranoia has been defined as a belief in an invisible order behind the visible world.

Paranoia and idealism thus are siblings.

There seems to be hard wiring in the human brain that makes us cast patterns over the world. That hard wiring seems to bring forth what Carl Jung called archetypes, that is, the narrative patterns our brains spin out and the shape we then jigger all of actual experience into.

And when forced to choose between the coherent pattern and the incoherent reality, we always choose the pattern.

Perhaps we could not live otherwise. But it makes me mistrust idealism just as I mistrust mathematics.