Charles Darwin: Did He Help Create Scientific Racism?

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. For some time now, this birthday has brought much commentary on his theory of evolution, especially about the controversy generated by conservative religious groups who reject his theory and the extensive scientific evidence supporting much of it. Darwin is often listed as one of the ten most influential thinkers in Western history (a parochial listing, as the list makers leave out the rest of the world), and probably deserves that designation.

An hommage to Charles Darwin on his 200th birthday
Creative Commons License photo credit: Serge K. Keller, FCD

Religion and evolution get the attention most of the time when Darwin is publicly debated, but his racial views are also getting a little attention as well. They should get much more attention. To his credit, Charles Darwin was opposed to slavery, and this got him into trouble a few times, but he shared many of the anti-equality racist views of his day. In The Independent Marek Kohn notes the shift in thinking during Darwin’s life about the monogenetic origin of humanity:

When Charles Darwin entered the world 200 years ago, there was one clear and simple answer to the slave’s question. All men were men and brothers, because all were descended from Adam. By the time Darwin had reached adulthood, however, opinions around him were growing more equivocal. During his vision-shaping voyage on the Beagle, he was able to consult an encyclopedia which arranged humankind into 15 separate species, each of a separate origin.

Reviewing a new book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Kohn summarizes thus:

Evolutionary thinking enabled [Darwin] to rescue the idea of human unity, taking it over from a religion that no longer provided it with adequate support, and put the idea of common descent on a rational foundation. . . . [However, as he aged and] As attitudes to race became harsher, sympathies for black people in the Americas more scant, and the fate of “savages” a matter of indifference, Darwin’s own sympathies were blunted by the prevailing fatalism.

As he got older, especially in his famous, The Descent of Man, Darwin fell in line with much of the racist thinking of his day and even developed an early version the perspective later called “social Darwinism”:

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes . . . will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

In his view, the “civilized races” would eventually replace the “savage races throughout the world.” Darwin’s earlier and most famous book was entitled: The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In such influential and momentous writings Darwin applied his evolutionary idea of natural selection not only to animal development but also to the development of human “races.” He saw natural selection at work in the killing of indigenous peoples of Australia by the British, wrote here of blacks (some of the “savage races”) being a category close to gorillas, and spoke against social programs for the poor and “weak” because such programs permitted the least desirable people to survive.

By the late 1800s a racist perspective called “social Darwinism” extensively developed these ideas of Darwin and argued aggressively that certain “inferior races” were less evolved, less human, and more apelike than the “superior races.” Prominent social scientists like Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner argued that social life was a life-and-death struggle in which the best individuals would win out over inferior individuals. Sumner argued that wealthy Americans, almost entirely white at the time, were products of natural selection and as the “superior race” essential to the advance of civilization. Black Americans were seen by many of these openly racist analysts as a “degenerate race” whose alleged “immorality” was a racial trait.

Though some have presented him that way, Darwin was not a bystander to this vicious scientific racism. In their earlier book, Darwin, Adrian Desmond and James Moore summarize thus:

‘Social Darwinism’ is often taken to be something extraneous, an ugly concretion added to the pure Darwinian corpus after the event, tarnishing Darwin’s image. But his notebooks make plain that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality were written into the equation from the start–‘Darwinism’ was always intended to explain human society.

Why has his racist thinking received so little attention in the celebration of his ideas and impact?


  1. Anonymous Guy

    Darwin may have been a racist and his ideas may have been used to justify racist social systems but scientific racism predates. You have people like Samuel Morton who was measuring skulls to determine intelligence and Louis Agassiz who was making “scientific” arguments for racial inferiority well before the publication of the Origin of Species. Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man has a good outline of these forms of scientific racism (as well as later forms of scientific racism). Gould does a good job of showing that a variety of scientific theories were used to argue for the inferiority of non-whites despite methodological deficiencies and counter evidence.

  2. GDAWG

    Joe, I would attribute much of the Social Darwinist movement to Darwin’s cousin Francis Dalton the founder of or creator of the ideas of eugenics.
    Darwin himself was anti-Slavery. In terms of his evolutionary ideas being applied to humans, obviously, there are some validity in some of his work in my opinion as a Black man of science.

  3. Seattle in Texas

    I tend to appreciate Darwin’s work also…some of the most heavily antiracist people I know (including “racism” against our fellow species and the environment—deep thought moment for some…) are Darwinian folks. Many of the most racist and classist scholars I’ve encountered have been anti-Darwin, yet they try to cover up their racism and classism in their assertion that they are anti-Darwin…but, gee, Malthus, Galton, Davis, are indeed fine scholars to them…. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) vs. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834); Herbert Spencer (1820-1903); Francis Galton (1822-1911); Cesare Lombrosso (1835-1909); Henry Herbert Goddard (1866-1957); Kingsley Davis (1908-1997) and others. Darwin was quite different from them and he did not press for pseudoscientific ideals and eugenics. In addition, unlike many other scholars, he did not see “progression” as happening in a linear fashion working toward “perfectionism”, etc. His metaphysical thinking was fundamentally different from most scholars (and the latter mentioned above)—even different from many of today (it was not linear or in a “moving forward” or moving in a single direction sense—it was closer to “chaotic” in the Chaos Theoretical sense). His thinking and grand theory is quite complex—definitely ahead of his time, and I would argue ahead of our time. Two major scholars who understood/understand Darwin in the correct context and theoretical framework, however, are: Emile Durkheim and currently Richard Dawkins. Durkheim was a heavy critic of Malthus, Spencer, Galton (if my memory serves me correctly), and Lombrosso. Yet, again, the majority of scholars I’ve encountered shut Darwin and Durkheim out charging them as being racist, sexist, elitists, while having no problems with the latter mentioned above…

    I would argue the concept of race for him was not the same as we understand it in the U.S. He applied the concept of race to horticulture and all life…. Despite the few times in all of his work he used elitist and racist language; he viewed all species in nominal terms and believed we are all related. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. And the ability (of any living organism(s)/species) to adapt, survive, procreate, protect offspring, reproduce fertile offspring, etc.—plus, adjust and adapt to the immediate environment and the ability to survive sudden and extreme changes, etc. was key to him. We humans think we are superior to pretty much everything—but think of how dependant we are to technology and many things that our fellow primates and other fellow species are not (we are more vulnerable than we would like to believe…and we are our own worst enemy). Yet many of our fellow species are unfortunately suffering and on the verge of extinction because of us.

    In addition, Darwin argued that variation is extremely important for any species to persist, thrive, and survive for any period of time (again metaphysically speaking on his terms)—greater procreatic variation is better. And while social and pseudo scientists wish to suggest there are major differences between so-called “races” of human beings, in all reality, there is very little genetic variation in the human race. It has been estimated that chimps and bonobos share approximately 98.4% of the same exact identical DNA as humans.

    In short, while I do not like every single line that Darwin wrote (which out of the thousands upon thousands, there are only relatively few), I stand behind GDAWG here.

  4. Joe

    Still, Darwin should not be made some kind of golden icon. He was not ahead of his time on the “savage races” that he wrote about, as he bought heavily into the racist thinking of his time. He did certainly accept the Western racist concept of “human races” of his day, and wrote negatively just like his peers about racial superiority and inferiority. Even though he was a critical thinker in biology, botany, and even religion–a self-described agnostic with atheistic views who was not afraid of alienating his own family with his religious doubts–he never openly broke with the vicious racist thinking of his day. (He also knew indigenous peoples, from his travels on the Beagle. He was sympathetic sometimes to their situation, but never saw them and his Western friends more objectively.) This strongly suggests that, of the many subjects intellectuals and scientists work on, the white racist frame may be among the hardest frameworks to discard. He was way behind other thinkers of his time, such as Frederick Douglass, whom he probably knew, or knew of. Why did he, a critical thinker, not break with the white racist frame?

  5. Matari

    Why did he, a critical thinker, not break with the white racist frame?
    Robert Jensen says this: “… the reality of racism in the United States, if at this point white people (myself included) underestimate the costs of being black it’s either because (1) we have made a choice not to know, or (2) we know but can’t face the consequences of that knowledge.

    On #1: To choose not to know about the reality of a situation in which one is privileged in an unjust system is itself a moral failure. When a system is structured to benefit people who look like me, and I choose not to listen to the evidence of how others suffer in that system, I have effectively decided not to act by deciding not to know.

    On #2: If I do know these things but am not willing to take meaningful action to undermine that unjust system, then my knowledge doesn’t much matter. Again, I have failed in moral terms.

    In either case, white people have incentives to underestimate the costs of white supremacy, to avoid facing our moral failing. Rather than suggesting whites “suffer from a glaring ignorance about what it means to live as a Black American,” it’s more accurate to point out that we whites typically choose to turn away from (1) the information readily available to us, or (2) the consequences of the information we do possess.”
    According to Jensen’s reasoning, it seems that it was not in Darwin’s self-interest to think too critically..

  6. Seattle in Texas

    I agree with some of those points…but , from my understanding it was Herbert Spencer whom incorrectly tried to apply Darwin’s work to society and social relations. And it was Spencer whom coined the term “survival of the fittest”–not Darwin. It is Spencer who should be of focus in my opinion…and the others (such as those mentioned above) who are widely appreciated in academia today are really who should also be looked at critically and questioned. Perhaps some people make Darwin made/make out to be a golden icon–some of those who do, are heavily antiracist and use his work in very positive ways. Obviously there are those who manipulated his work, who too, probably would have made him out to be a golden icon….

    We all have our own understanding of his work. My understanding is that he did not see conceptions of race as we do in the U.S., rather scholars took that term and used it in a horrible and very corrupt ways. It’s important to be critical of all work–I don’t know of anybody personally who would hold Darwin’s work as the be all and end all. But his work and theory can be used for antiracist purposes. He is not widely taught and taken seriously in academia anyway–as others are today, who do actually condone, excuse, support, and even promote eugenic and most definitely white supremacist ideologies in various explicit and implicit ways.

    I cannot answer the last questions because I do not see Darwin in that sense, or even understand him in that way. That is your presentation of him, one of several I have been introduced to. My previous teachings and readings of Darwin were from Darwinians (or perhaps Neo-Darwinians to be more precise), who were critical of his work and noted problems with elitism and racist language–just as the Marxists of today are critical of Marx. If Darwin was agnostic or an athiest, that was his business–not ours. I don’t think it’s anything for any of us to get all teary eyed over. But I most certainly do agree, there are also other great thinkers that need to be more widely taught and appreciated, such as, Fredrick Douglass. I don’t think it’s fair to concentrate all of the blame on Darwin for eugenics–his work was not focused on society and social relations. Others tried to do that–and wrongfully so. As Durkheim is able to distinguish also.

    But to each his or her own. Just my own independent thoughts….

  7. GDAWG

    SiT Excellent points and to go furthewr here in the NYT review of Books from a week ago is Desmond and Moore’s new work on Darwin:

    How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution.” In this book the authors argue how Darwin really was an abolitionist.

  8. Seattle in Texas

    GDAWG, thank you–I will check it out for sure. It sounds interesting. I know Origins was published after he passed on because it was so controversial during those times due to religious oppression, etc.. With all honesty, I have not read any of his other work that was published when he was alive and have not read any in depth biographies, etc. on him. The Darwinians I know pay regard to mainly Origins, as far as I know as I have never heard anything other discussed or referenced. They are good folks and perhaps some of the best and most qualified at challenging and countering the racist and classist pro-eugenic folks in contemporary times. They are not folks to dismiss, in my opinion…. And from what I understand, Darwin withdrew from society pretty heavily during his last years into near isolation. But thank you for the reference!

    On a different note, I wanted to suggest that it may actually be Thomas Malthus (who is taken seriously today in academic and scholarly circles) that should be given the most credit, since Herbert Spencer drew much of his thinking on society from him, who came before Darwin (of whom did not focus on social relations)…. And please allow me to be humorous (just a bit because I don’t know if the reference to Darwin alienating his family from their religion was meant to come across as funny in an ironic way or if it was presented in a serious manner…), either way, perhaps Darwin was attempting to do his family a service by liberating them from what Marx would later refer to as, “the opiate of he masses”…. A smile for those with humor and a tissue for those who take offense…. All is good… 🙂

  9. Seattle in Texas

    Will check out reviews and of course the book–the reviews sounds like very nice compliments to the main post above. I am glad some alternative work is being done in this area too–much needed. Thank you,

  10. Philstudent

    One of the most interesting ideas/facts I found in Darwin’s Origin of Species is that the lines between species are blurry (both on a time line and at any one given time.) So when I read about “Social Darwinism,” I wonder if Darwin thought it was more an issue of ‘advanced, adapted civilization’ versus ‘primitive, less evolved savagery’ than that of race/species A vs. race/species B. He definitely uses racist language in the quotes above, but I wonder if there is something of a difference there.

  11. GDAWG

    I don’t know if I could adequately critque the language and its’context back then and compared to today’s usuage. Perhaps, generally speaking, what is considered racist language today, may not have been much so back then, considering the sociological/political milieu in existence then. Not to excuse it, but rather to weigh its contexual meaning then and now is important to some extent.

  12. Joe

    Darwin’s “savage races” is much like that of the other flaming racists of his day. For example, US President Andrew Johnson in 1867 commented on what he called the “naked savages,” saying, “It is vain to deny that they [black Americans] are an inferior race—very far inferior to the European variety. They have learned in slavery all that they know in civilization.”

    And how is this much different from the many books and articles today on black inferiority, such as in regard to IQ or family structures. I have a recent book making the same argument as Johnson about slavery civilizing Blacks, etc.

  13. Seattle in Texas

    I’m closing my thoughts on Darwin here…perhaps the fact that Darwin used racist terminology is new news, great for those who weren’t aware. Perhaps it is shocking for some that he was non-religious. Well you know now. So, with just that, why don’t we all say, to hell with Darwin! Racist Christian Fundamentalist hate him too–they love any support they can get.

    Those who’ve critically read Origins and get the big picture–and in a non-racist way, most awesome. After all, it appears he was an abolitionist. Those who are in touch with antiracist Neo-Darwinians, cheers! They have already dealt with all this and are doing much important work and making change where they can globally, including in different ecosystems extending all the way to our many relatives here on earth. Muah to Jane Goodall!

    From my understanding, this website is designed to provide general information, soooo–let me not intrude any further. I would encourage those who are concerned about learning more on those who actively championed eugenics and that line of thought, to look into folks like Malthus, Spencer, Goddard, etc. And as noted 16., there are plenty in contemporary times to battle, of which I know the antiracist Darwinians are on the front lines, with others. Cheers to all of them doing important work. Not into pitting antiracist folks from different areas, standpoints, etc. against eachother…. 🙁

    Though, have to close with perhaps a new joke I learned today. Diet water and pizzas with no crust are racist! Absolutely.

  14. tpm3

    I have a very important point to make for all of those who have their heads in the sand. JUST BECAUSE A PERSON IS AGAINST SLAVERY DOES NOT MEAN THAT HE ALSO NOT A RACIST!! Just because we believe that animals should be treated without cruelty does not mean that we think they are equal. There is a story that the Jews have taught. It is the story of Esther. Her relative Mordecai raised her. If you know the story well,then you also know of Haman (second in command to the king), in the story. Haman had a fit and was the mastermind of a diabolical plot to enact a genocide against the Jews. All of this was the result of an incident where Mordecai refused under any corcumstances to bow in obesiensce to Haman. Haman could have jumped of his high horse, pulled out his sword and killed Mordecai, but he didn’t. Why? Because Haman was too evolved to resort to that kind of indignate behavior. So he hatched a nefarious plan. He singlehandedly masterminded a law to be decreed against the lives of the Jews. Esther called for a fast for three days. After much prayer, Esther acted courageously. The success of the Jews in this episode is a traditional Jewish feast observed today. It is called Purim.


  1. Darwin believed some human ‘species’ were superior than others! | Net Sauce
  2. Was Charles Darwin racist? | One Tawny Stranger (formerly known as Fleecyhead Milagrero)
  3. Did Darwin believe in HBD? | Pumpkin Person
  4. Is the Word 'Race' Racist? - Re-Engineering Politics
  5. Taking leave of our senses a new federal government mandate |

Leave a Reply