Skip to main content
UNC Libraries


A General System of Nature

Carl von Linné (1707–1778) 

A General System of Nature 

London: Lackington, Allen, and Co., 1806 

Linnaeus’s system of taxonomy revolutionized how biologists categorized and understood relationships between animals. This transformation had a profound effect on theories of race, as Linnaeus and many of his followers defined race as analogous to species. Here, he subdivides Homo sapiens into four races: American, European, Asiatic, and African. In this way, Linnaeus argued that Homo sapiens existed in four basic varieties, defined primarily by geography, rather than by physiological differences.  

Old Library Collection, North Carolina Collection 

North Carolina Collection Old Library C500 L75 O.L. v.1 

Oeuvres completes de Buffon <br /><br />

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788) 

Oeuvres completes de Buffon 

Paris: Baudouin, 1828 

Buffon disagreed with many of Linnaeus’s theories, including his taxonomic system. Although a monogenist, a believer that all human beings are part of the same species, Buffon promulgated the so-called degeneration theory. This theory proposed that whites were the original race and all other races were formed through degeneration due to poor climate and diet.

Gift of President and Mrs. Gordon Gray 

Rare Book Collection QH45 .B9 1828 

The Ape

The Negro (Africanus)/The Ape 

[Hillsboro, North Carolina, circa 1960s] 

Even after scientific consensus abandoned polygenist theories, the language of taxonomy remained at the center of white supremacist ideology. In this broadside produced as anti-civil rights propaganda, people of African descent are compared to apes, using pseudo-scientific terminology. On the reverse, a depiction of an African American as ape-like appears.

North Carolina Collection 

North Carolina Collection Cb326 N393