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Links between the discovery of primates and anatomical comparisons with humans, the chain of being, our place in nature, and racism

Dec 1, 2017

I focus on the crucial links between the discovery of nonhuman primates by Westerners, discussions on our place in nature, the chain of being, racism, and the history of primate comparative anatomy and of so-called "anatomical human racial studies." Strikingly, for more than a millennium humans knew more about the internal anatomy of a single monkey species than about that of their own bodies. This is because Galen used monkeys to infer human anatomy, in line with the human-animal continuity implied by the Greek notion of scala naturae. With the rise of Christianity, nonhuman primates were increasingly seen in a negative way. A more positive view emerged in the 14th century when nonhuman primates were directly studied/seen by Europeans, culminating in Tyson's 1699 work showing that chimps share more gross anatomical similarities with humans than with monkeys. However, the discomfort caused by this human-chimp similarity then led to a new idea of animal-human discontinuity, now related not to anatomy but to "civilization": between Europeans vs. non-Europeans+other primates. Moreover, Linnaeus' Systema Naturae and the emergence of "anatomical racial studies" influenced by Camper's craniology then led to even more extreme ideas, such as the notion that Europeans were both mentally and morphologically "ideal." Unfortunately the biased and often incorrect "results" of such studies, combined with ideas based on Darwin's "struggle for survival", became crucial in propaganda that lead to the rise of eugenics in the end of the 19th/first half of 20th centuries and that culminated in Nazism. Since the 1950s there has been an emphasis on the continuity/unity between all human groups and other primates, in great part influenced by what happened during World War 2. Reviews such as this one are, therefore, particularly necessary to illuminate and guard against attitudes against "the Other" and racist ideologies that are re-emerging in modern political discourse across the globe.

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