The Colonial History of the Human | Nature Binary and it's Role in Upholding White Supremacy
Updated: Apr 21, 2021
Content warning: Discussion of enslavement, eugenics, Indigenous genocide, and land theft
In our society, we are raised to believe that there is a fundamental difference between humans and all other animals, and thus nature itself. We call our society, culture, and materials “man-made” and we call everything else “natural.” The fact that all humans are another species of animal is well-established in fields of biology, ecology, even sociology, but it still feels like there is a huge gap between our society (with its cars and institutions and grocery stores and technology) and the rest of the living, organic world.
We created this binary centuries ago, and we reinforce it everyday. The imagined or constructed binary between humans and nature allows us to remove ourselves from the equation of nature, non-human animals, and climate.
Both capitalism and colonization depend on this division. Western, capitalist culture survives on a deep, foundational separation of humans and nature. All social binaries create an imbalance of power, and the “human / nature” binary allows us to allocate certain rights to people by locating them somewhere along this imagined binary. The placement of different groups of people is managed by the group with the most social power (in our society, this is white people, men, the wealthy, etc). This system allows us to deprive rights of groups of people, by pushing them away from the “human” half of the binary.
The binary between humans and non-humans hasn’t always looked like it does today, or operated in the same way. For centuries, the Bible and pre-enlightenment philosophers dictated who was human and who was not. Humans were believed to be distinctly separate from animals because they had souls. In the 1900’s, Darwinian evolution started to overtake these older theories. Darwinian evolution claims that humans and animals evolved from the same organisms, and therefore are not biologically dissimilar. In response to the rise of evolutionary theory, the field of eugenics develops. Eugenicists believe that certain traits (i.e. whiteness) are evidence of a “more evolved” human. Eugenicists separate humans and nature by falsely quantifying evolution, and create a binary between more evolved humans and lesser evolved animals & everything else.
The increasing acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution threatened white supremacy. This theory not only delegitimize the intense divide between humans and non-human animals, but it also delegitimized the divide between the white race and all of the many non-white races. The idea that all humans evolved from a common ancestor challenged the idea that white people are of a different species than people of color, particularly Black people. This idea was fundamental to the history and economy of white supremacy in the U.S., including the institution of enslavement.Faced with this new information, white eugenicists developed a new ideology that misused Darwin’s ideas to continue to uphold white supremacy. Eugenicists claimed that white people are “more evolved” than people of color.
Through eugenics, human / nature binary upholds white supremacy. The human / nature binary became a tool for rationalizing and defending slavery while maintaining the oppression and exploitation of Black people in the U.S. By claiming that white people are more evolved than Black people, white people were able to push Black people away from the human side of the binary. Denying their humanity validated the policies that maintained the enslavement of Black people in the U.S., and later the implementation of segregation.
The human / nature binary was also used to rationalize the land-theft and genocide of Indiginous people. The human / nature binary was and continues to be a tool for colonization of Indigenous lands and people. Similar to how the binary was used to dehumanize Black people, it was also used to rationalize the genocide of Indigenous people in the U.S. Indigenous people were classified as less civilized, which was used as rationale in the cultural genocide that took place during early U.S. colonial expansion. Colonization was validated through eugenics as expanding the”civilized man’s” land.
We can deconstruct this binary by recognizing that humans are not biologically different to the extent that they can be placed along an evolutionary scale of “least” or “most” evolved. Further, humans are a part of nature. Our culture, inventions, languages, and behaviors are also a part of nature. Maintaining this binary not only upholds supremacy, but it rationalizes a history of violence, enslavement and colonization, while justifying the many on-going environmental injustices that occur everyday.
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Jöns, H. (2006). Dynamic hybrids and the geographies of technoscience: Discussing conceptual resources beyond the human/non-human binary. Social & Cultural Geography, 7(4), 559-580.