The first step to understanding race is to understand the basic building blocks of biological classification: taxonomy. Biology Online defines taxonomy as “the science of finding, describing, classifying, and naming organisms, including the studying of the relationships between taxa and the principles underlying such a classification.”

Taxonomic systems are “social constructs” that allow us to build a cohesive view of the world by placing ‘things’ into predefined categories, known as ‘taxa’ (singular: ‘taxon’), within a wider hierarchical order, according to how related those ‘things’ are to one another. This process of categorization and hierarchical ordering is something that we all do instinctively, day-by-day. Consider how you classify items around your home: A bowl and mug are crockery; a knife and fork are cutlery; crockery and cutlery are kitchenware; kitchenware and furniture are homeware. You get the picture.

Some people argue that taxonomy is merely “fiddling around with semantics,” which is complete nonsense. Taxonomy is a central pillar of biology and how we categorize our world is extremely important. Man-made categorizations (so-called “social constructs”) define our entire perception of reality. They dramatically impact how we view ourselves and how we interact with our surroundings. There’s a reason why so much of the modern “culture war” focuses on controlling language. Controlling language is almost akin to controlling reality itself.

Ancient Taxonomy

Although naming and classifying our surroundings has taken place since the dawn of communication (“don’t eat those berries, they’re poisonous”), the science of classifying organisms can be traced back to Ancient Greece.

During the 4th Century BC, Aristotle recorded and categorized the attributes of countless species, producing an incredible breadth of work. In ‘Historia Animalium’ (“The History of Animals,” 322 BC), Aristotle sets out to investigate four major differences between animals: Body parts, ways of life, types of activity, and specific characters. He established that animals can be recognized as “groups” when all members possess the same set of distinguishing features. All birds have the universal characteristics of wings, beaks, feathers, etc. This was the first scientific definition of species or race.

Aristotle’s taxonomy placed organisms in a hierarchical ranking system, based on their physical and behavioral characteristics. Animals were ranked above plants, based on their ability to move and sense; live birth was ranked above egg-laying; and warm-blooded animals above ‘bloodless’ invertebrates. He concluded that Plants had a vegetative soul, animals a sensitive soul, and man a rational soul.

Modern Taxonomy

Aristotle’s taxonomic system was influential for over 2,000 years and many of his distinctions, such as vertebrate and invertebrate, are still used to this day. This method of scientific classification continued throughout the Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern periods. Our modern taxonomic system was created by Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), who refined existing taxonomic processes by creating a standardized naming system.

Today, specialized biologists, known as taxonomists, are responsible for sorting organisms into taxa. The validity of a classification is agreed upon by scientific consensus, presided over by official taxonomic organizations. Every living creature on earth theoretically has a taxonomic classification, from blue whales to single-celled organisms.

The ranks (or ‘taxa’) within a taxonomic system nest together like a Russian matryoshka doll, whereby each rank is more specific and narrowly defined than the last. Within the biological taxonomic system, multiple species fit into one genus, multiple genera fit into one family, multiple families fit into one order, and so on.

Although formal taxonomic rankings span from domain to subspecies, we can infinitely peel back each “layer” of the taxonomic matryoshka doll, right down to the level of the individual. For example, a Dutch individual could be classified as follows:

→ Eukaryota
→ Animalia
→ Chordata
→ Mammalia
→ Primates
→ Haplorhini
→ Simiiformes
→ Hominidae [“Hominids” or “Great Apes”]
→ Homininae
→ Hominini
→ Homo [Genus]
→ Homo sapiens [Species, “The Human Race”]
→ “Caucasoid” or West Eurasian [Subspecies]
— “Unofficial” taxonomy below this line
→ European [“White people”]
→ Northwest European
→ Germanic
→ West Germanic
→ Dutch
→ North Brabant dwellers
→ Eindhoven dwellers
→ [Dutch family name]
→ [Dutch individual]

Different taxonomic layers become relevant under different circumstances. For example, if you wanted to compare the genetics of West and North Germanic people, it makes no sense to study the entire Primate order or two Dutch individuals from Eindhoven.

Historically, ‘race’ was used as an informal shorthand term that could refer to any level of the taxonomic hierarchy, from subspecies to domains. Hence, we find scientists, such as Johann F. Blumenbach (1752–1840), writing things like: “I believed that the whole human race [species] was most appropriately brought under the following five races [subspecies].”

Race, as per its current definition, is used near-exclusively to refer to human beings. In this sense, it is equivalent to the rank of ‘subspecies,’ i.e. two or more populations within the same species that have became phenotypically (physically and behaviorally) distinct from one another due to geographic separation and divergent evolution. Subspecies can successfully interbreed with one another when their territories overlap, but mostly choose not to, for whatever reason. Generally speaking, full species cannot interbreed to produce fertile offspring. Though, it should be noted that there are numerous exceptions to this rule, including hybrid species (see below image) and species that reproduce asexually (self-cloning).

Fertile hybrid species:

Species and subspecies are the first “formal” rankings. Since they are the ‘fundamental units’ of taxonomy, they’re often mistakenly regarded as the smallest distinct biological groups that either exist or are scientifically meaningful. This is not true by any means. As previously mentioned, biological groups can always be divided and subdivided, right down to the level of the individual.

Genus ranks above species in the taxonomic hierarchy. The first half of an animal’s scientific (Latin) name is its genus. For example, the gray wolf, Canis lupus, and North American coyote, Canis latrans, both belong to the ‘Canis’ genus (canines). The genus of humanity is ‘Homo.’

Classifying Taxa

Generally speaking, there is much confusion among the public as to what criteria separates one taxon group from the next. While taxonomists do take breeding compatibility into account, a variety of other factors are also considered, including morphology, physiology, ethology, ecology, evolutionary history, genetics, and so on.

In other words, an organism is classified based upon its appearance, its physical construction, what it does, how it acts, where it lives, and which organisms it is genetically descended from, related to, or distinct from. Reproduction is just one piece of a much wider puzzle. Taxonomists generally regard an organisms’ morphology — its external physical appearance (eidonomy) and internal structure (anatomy) — as the most important piece of the puzzle. Additionally, an organisms’ phenotype, the sum total of its observable characteristics (build, behavior, etc.), generally takes precedent over genetic data.

All of the aforementioned factors tend to be strongly correlated. Two animals that exhibit major genetic differences will also exhibit major behavioral and physical differences. Similarly, two animals that exhibit major behavioral differences will also exhibit major physical and genetic differences, and so on. A sea cucumber, for example, is very genetically different from a wolf, but not quite as genetically different from a starfish; this is reflected in both their behaviors and morphologies.

There is no absolute formula for defining an organisms’ taxonomic classification, and some problem cases can lead to heated arguments between taxonomists. Still, the taxonomic system is generally reliable and accurate — until humanity comes into the picture. In our case, taxonomy is applied horrendously badly.