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Mutant bodies: race and biopolitics in Latin American scientific imaginaries

Sarah Abel

The term “scientific racism” is often used to refer to the biological-reductionist theories of race that emerged from Eurocentric anthropological thought in the nineteenth century. In this session, we extend this historiography to look at how diverse racial theories arose in colonial Latin American societies, to explain the supposedly inherent physiological and psychological differences between Indigenous populations, enslaved Africans, Spaniards and Portuguese, criollos, and their mixed descendants. These theories often revolved around assumptions about these populations’ reactions to the “natural world”: environment, climate, food – even the influence of the stars. We will also address how the racialized links between population and place that were established during the colonial period continue to resurface in contemporary forms of biomedical research and environmental racism.

Key issues:

  • Evolution of “scientific” racisms
  • Biopolitics
  • Mutation and fixity
  • Health and sickness as racialized categories
  • Geographic determinism and environmental racism

Required reading:

  • Baedke, Jan, and Abigail Nieves Delgado. ‘Race and Nutrition in the New World: Colonial Shadows in the Age of Epigenetics’. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 76 (2019): 101175. 
  • Cañizares Esguerra, Jorge. “New World, New Stars: Patriotic Astrology and the Invention of Indian and Creole Bodies in Colonial Spanish America, 1600-1650.” The American Historical Review 104, no. 1 (1999): 33–68.
  • Katzew, Ilona. Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2004. Chapter 2.

Further reading: