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Topic section: Curiosity and difference
Curiosity and difference
Picture: 04_10325828.jpg

A coloured engraving showing facial portraits of men from different parts of the world. Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Race, gender, class and physical difference have all been scrutinised and exploited by western culture to illustrate how nature has deviated from the ideal. Human perfection is probably most succinctly illustrated by the iconic image of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. This image of human physical perfection of mathematical design was a popular understanding of human beings – a predestined copy of divine order. Christian thought had significantly dominated Europe’s beliefs about humanity and difference, and the biblical oppositions of dark and light, good and evil, were used as justifications for imperfections such as race and disease.

The age of enlightenment witnessed a focussing of these ideals, with philosophy and science restructuring difference towards the idea of polygeneism – the human race comprising of several distinct races. In his tenth edition of Systema Naturae (1758), Carl Linnaeus, the founder of systematic taxonomy, defined the ‘four races of man’ as part of his discussion of primate mammals.

The Americanus, Europaeus, Asiaticus and Afer were specified as the core races according to geographical regions. Linnaeus then attributed a colour, posture and one of the ‘humours’ of ancient Greek philo

The ‘healthy, male, intelligent and white’ standard therefore judged and placed many people within the realm of difference

sophy to each of the races. Hence the Homo Afer (African) was black, phlegmatic, relaxed and ruled by caprice, whereas the Homo Europaeus (European) was white, sanguine, muscular and ruled by custom. Linnaeus also included two more categories: Homo Ferus and Homo Monstrous, both of which encompassed less well-understood humans who suffered from physical disability or mental illness. The four descriptions of the races served as a prototype from which further discussions on race evolved. The ‘healthy, male, intelligent and white’ standard therefore judged and placed many people (women, black people, Jewish people) within the realm of difference – and it becomes understandable how deformities or birth defects would have provoked an uncomfortable reaction in Europe at a time when these ideals were being commonly upheld.

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Topic section: Body image and weight
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Images and ideals of the slender body contrast ironically with heavier and heavier realities. Sedentary life styles and cheaper food during the twentieth century have made it easier to pile on the pounds. The contradiction between image and reality has caused much unhappiness.  > more

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Topic section: Body image and adornment
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Piercings, tattoos and adornments may shock or beautify. For thousands of years they have also indicated social status. However individual they seek to make the wearer and bizarre they appear, they reflect broader social and cultural trends.  > more

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Topic section: Body image and modification
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Modifying the body itself to fit in with social expectations has a long tradition. Some modifications, like orthodontics, are intended to make people look 'normal'. Others, like cosmetic surgery, are conducted in search of outstanding beauty.  > more
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