Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Curious Case of the London Troglodyte

Homo sapiens. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? After all, recognizing that every human being is a member of the same species—that we’re all fundamentally made of the same stuff—sits at the center of why there’s any such thing as universal human rights. Homo sapiens, from the Latin, “Wise Man.”

The Swede who named us, however, was limited by the popular wisdom of his time. Failing to recognize that albino African children were, in fact, the same species as European children, botanist Carolus Linnaeus tried in 1758 to purchase a teenage girl in London as a scientific specimen. He thought she was a troglodyte.

February, 1758

Winter locked the river in ice. But light bloomed like beads of sweat inside his greenhouse of specimens—here a rare African violet, there a pineapple from Java. Linnaeus liked to walk through his garden at Uppsala before settling in to a day’s work. After all, he’d trained as a botanist.

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