For some time now, there has been new attention to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, including 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. There is much use of the concept of evolution, too, these days–and even a type of discipline called “evolutionary psychology.”
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 recurring celebrations of Darwin and use of his major ideas and celebrations of his impact?
Darwin is complicated.
Are the cited authors calling Darwin a racist or that his incomplete ideas have been used against him to paint a picture he did not intend?
There are many flavors of Darwin-haters. Some dismiss Darwin because his “radical” ideas contradict their religious views. Other Darwin-haters are slightly more subtle. They try to use inconsistencies in Darwin’s work to attack his own ideas. In this case, the authors attempt to impugn Darwin–and by extension the entire superstructure of evolutionary theory–by asserting that Darwin was an ignorant racist. Thus, if Darwin was an ignorant racist, then right-minded citizens of the 21st century should / can repudiate racism by rejecting Darwin and his evolutionary theory.
It is true that Darwin’s thinking on “race” among humans was exceedingly muddled–and in some cases he wrote things that, by 21st century standards were indefensibly ignorant. We suspect that Darwin was the equivalent of an “arm chair liberal.” While he defended the principle of “the brotherhood of man” and he spoke out against slavery, he would never have dreamed of inviting non-white men–much less women–to become members of his private clubs.
Flawed as Darwin was as a man, and incorrect as his theories may have been in various details (e.g., Darwin had no grasp of genetics or DNA), Darwin-haters cannot alter the fact that his evolutionary theory remains a viable and important unifying framework for the entire history of life on earth.
Thanks to Dr. Tim McGettigan for help sorting all this out
Earl, those are interesting questions and comments. But the main point in my commentary here is that Darwin himself bought into some of the white-racist framing of his day, and there are significant examples of this white-racist framing in his writings. This was a key period in the rise of scientific racism, and it is the rare white scientist or physician who did not buy into that framing.
Thanks for the post.