Lettow Susanne | Knowing Nature. Gender, Race and Biology at the Beginning of the 19th Century


At the turn of the 19th century, the formation of biology as a specific area of scientific knowledge fundamentally transformed the ‘moral authority of nature’ (Lorraine Daston). A new form of the naturalization of gender relations and other hierarchies emerged when living nature became the object of a new science. Therefore, from its inception, biological knowledge functioned not only as a specific kind of scientific knowledge but also as political-ethical knowledge. Due to this ambivalent epistemological status, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, biological knowledge became appealing to many areas of the humanities and to political discourse, especially with regard to concepts of race and gender. Until now, strategies of the naturalization of inequalities do not function by referring to ‘nature’ as such, but mainly by referring to biology – be it evolutionary theory, genomics or brain research.
In my paper, I reconstruct the emergence of this science-centred strategy of naturalization within natural history and German nature philosophies in the decades around 1800. I mainly focus on Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, Immanuel Kant, Christoph Girtanner, Carl Friedrich Kielmeyer, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, and Lorenz Oken. These widely read and influential authors not only contributed to defining the epistemic boundaries of biology but they also contributed in different ways to the formation of modern gender and race discourse. In fact, concepts of ‘gender’ and ‘race’ were not considered as analogies (as partially occurred later in the 19th century), nor did they have the same epistemic status and meaning for the various authors. However, in connection with concepts of heredity and reproduction – which played a central role in the process of the temporalisation of nature in the late 18th century – concepts of gender and race for the first time gained a biological meaning, in contrast to earlier usage. At the same time, they also were transformed from classificatory into genealogical concepts – a transformation that was of central importance for emergence of population politics in the 19th century. I argue in my paper that this overlapping of biological, genealogical, mythical and political meanings and thus their unstable epistemic status makes the biopolitical concepts of gender and race so stable in scientific and in political ethical discourse that until today they reappear in political and scientific discourses.