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The scientific conception of species and its impact
on popular representations of human taxonomy and
evolution in Mexican visual culture

Ana Barahona & Erica Torrens

If we think of concepts that have been decisive to the development of biological taxonomy in general, and of human beings in particular, the terms ‘species’ and ‘race’ undoubtedly come to mind. Scientific conceptions of race have drifted in space and time since the seventeenth century. Naturalists such as Linnaeus and Buffon, philosophers such as Kant and Locke and other scholars such as Hobbes and Bernier have historically contributed to defining and restraining human diversity.

In this talk, the authors seek to provide a historiographic account of the concepts of species and race, to comment on the use of the former, first as a tool for measuring biodiversity and later as a conservation unit; and about the latter as a factor of impact on the taxonomy of human beings. To this end, we are interested in showing how both concepts have interacted in the visual characterization of human diversity. We know today that race belongs to the realm of human culture, whereas the concept of species is inherent to biological thought. However, it is interesting to look at how the worlds of racial and human species classification have converged into a murky realm of supposed objectivity and of human creativity and imagination. For the latter, we will review important contributions to the genesis of the concept of race and the racialization of human beings, as well as its recent use in biological and anthropological classifications, within a global context.

To conclude, we will turn our attention to how the new scientific conceptions of race and human species that appeared in the late eighteenth century gave rise to a novel visual culture (in terms of the Mexican scenario) to show how the discourse of both racial hierarchies and the characterization of species have been supported by pictorial representation. This in turn has been important for non-specialists in forging a deeply entrenched distinction between human diversity and other living entities, positioning humans outside the natural and evolutionary realm.

Furthermore, the authors will show how the categories used to characterize humans are far from solely technical tools but rather cultural objects that travel from scientific to non-scientific realms and back again, making the thin red line indistinct and subject to scientific and philosophical enquiry.

Last Updated: 5/5/22