Sex Division in Natural History

Leverhulme Trust, 2018–2021

  • Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship: Professor Stella Sandford

This project is an investigation of the place and the status of the category of ‘sex’ (in distinction from that of ‘gender’) in the systems and schemes of classification in natural history from the late-sixteenth century onwards. It aims to understand and explain how and why ‘sex’ could be both fundamental to these systems and schemes and yet apparently invisible to critical attention; and to investigate whether and how the presumptions concerning the category of sex in classical natural history are relevant to our understanding of the category of sex with which humans categorise themselves today. One of its hypotheses is that the history of the ‘sexual theory’ in botany is not the discovery of what is now treated as an obvious fact, but rather a history of significant conceptual change, or the major site of the development of a generic concept of sex.

The research proposes, further, that there is an important link between the fact that the first consistent use of the idea of the sexual aspect of fructification in a system of the classification of plants was by the botanist and natural historian Linnaeus who also first dared, in the Western Christian context, to include human beings in the total system of nature. In other words, the hypothesis is that the central but untheorized, generic category of sex plays an important role in facilitating this shift in classificatory scope. As this ‘naturalization of the human being’ is one of the historical conditions for the emergence of the racial categorization of peoples, the relation between the generic concept of sex and the concept of ‘race’ driving racial thinking will also be investigated, via an analysis of the use of a trans-linguistic constellation of terms: genus, genre and Geschlecht.

Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP)