Its Charles Darwin’s birthday today … (he was born 12 Feb 1809).
There is much I could write, and would like to write about him, but right now I feel it to be appropriate to examine the truly daft claim that many believers put forward. In addition to the usual “Evolution is a lie” crap, we also sometimes face the truly outrageous claim that Darwin was a racist and promoted evolution as a racist ideology.
Such claims are a direct attack upon factually based Science by irrational belief, and is of course complete nonsense, but they are serious charges, and do indeed have a considerable traction in some minds. Sadly, it is not only coming from kooks lurking on the religious fringe, but you also hear it from the mouths of many mainstream believers, elected officials, and even within some academic publications, so it is important to not simply dismiss it as nonsense, but to the claim and robustly refute such incoherent babbling with facts.
Darwin The racist
The claim often asserted is that not only does Evolution endorse and promote racism, but also that Charles Darwin himself was a racist and openly labelled native Africans and Australians, as a savage, sub-species.
In fact, some have even attempted to incarnate this belief within law. In 2001 , US State Representative Sharon Broome of Louisiana proposed a resolution to condemn “Darwinist ideology” as racist:
BE IT RESOLVED that the Legislature of Louisiana does hereby deplore all instances and ideologies of racism, does hereby reject the core concepts of Darwinist ideology that certain races and classes of humans are inherently superior to others, and does hereby condemn the extent to which these philosophies have been used to justify and approve racist practices.
This racist claim is pervasive in some strands of belief, if you google the term, “Darwin The racist” you will receive a flood of over 2 million hits – that’s insane.
So, how can we possibly get to the truth here? Well, lets simplify things a bit and split the accusation into two specific questions:
- Was Darwin himself racist?
- Does Natural Selection promote, or support racist thinking?
An initial temptation might be the observation that Darwin, like many others during the nineteenth century, held a view about the supremacy of the white race, but to do so would not be historically correct, because he was in fact an abolitionist and openly opposed the already existing eugenic concepts. To demonstrate that this is a historical fact we need only briefly examine his writings.
Lets start by considering Darwin’s 1871 publication, “The Descent of man”. This was his second great book and follows his far more famous 1859 publication, “On the Origin of Species”, and within it he applies his evolutionary theory to humans. Here we find that he directly addresses the concept of races of humans.
To give this book some context, you also need to remember that it was written in a time when the majority of anthropologists believed that the different races of humans were distinctly separate species.
So what was Darwin’s view? Upon reading, we quickly discover that he opposed the popular racist discourse and instead proposed that all human beings were the same species, and viewed the differences between human races as superficial. In fact he was quite unique in that respect, and made no distinction between biological races but instead emphasised how similar we all were underneath the superficial differences such as skin or hair colour. Note also that he views all, regardless of external differences, to have essentially the same mind.
Although the existing races of man differ in many respects, as in colour, hair, shape of skull, proportions of the body, &c., yet if their whole organisation be taken into consideration they are found to resemble each other closely in a multitude of points. Many of these points are of so unimportant or of so singular a nature, that it is extremely improbable that they should have been independently acquired by aboriginally distinct species or races. The same remark holds good with equal or greater force with respect to the numerous points of mental similarity between the most distinct races of man. The American aborigines, Negroes and Europeans differ as much from each other in mind as any three races that can be named; yet I was incessantly struck, whilst living with the Fuegians on board the Beagle, with the many little traits of character, shewing how similar their minds were to ours; and so it was with a full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate – The Descent of Man, Chapter VII
This is a complete revolution, and was quite contrary to the popular thinking of that time, he clearly did not believe that “savages” were savage by birth, as many people did in his time, but rather that all people were relatively equal, and that the differences between civilized Europeans and tribal peoples were due to knowledge and instruction.
When Darwin was eighteen he recorded his friendship with a black man in the UK, whom he had spent time with. His notes were later published in his autobiography.
By the way, a negro lived in Edinburgh, who had travelled with Waterton, and gained his livelihood by stuffing birds, which he did excellently: he gave me lessons for payment, and I used often to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man.
– Charles Darwin; The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 1887
In the autobiographical chapter of The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Darwin recalled the following about the conflicts that arose during his voyage on the HMS Beagle over the issue of slavery.
Fitz-Roy’s temper was a most unfortunate one. It was usually worst in the early morning, and with his eagle eye he could generally detect something amiss about the ship, and was then unsparing in his blame. He was very kind to me, but was a man very difficult to live with on the intimate terms which necessarily followed from our messing by ourselves in the same cabin. We had several quarrels; for instance, early in the voyage at Bahia, in Brazil, he defended and praised slavery, which I abominated, and told me that he had just visited a great slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them whether they were happy, and whether they wished to be free, and all answered “No.” I then asked him, perhaps with a sneer, whether he thought that the answer of slaves in the presence of their master was worth anything? This made him excessively angry, and he said that as I doubted his word we could not live any longer together. I thought that I should have been compelled to leave the ship; but as soon as the news spread, which it did quickly, as the captain sent for the first lieutenant to assuage his anger by abusing me, I was deeply gratified by receiving an invitation from all the gun-room officers to mess with them. But after a few hours Fitz-Roy showed his usual magnanimity by sending an officer to me with an apology and a request that I would continue to live with him.
– Charles Darwin; The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 1887
Now you be the judge, are these the words and actions of a racist?
It is astonishingly easy to quote mine phrases out of context by latching on to terms such as “Race” and “Savage” that he uses at various points in his writings, but what you are never told is the precise meaning of such terms at that time. Nor are you shown the bigger picture and how quote mined phrases have been lifted out of context to twist their meaning 180 degrees.
The true racists of Darwin s time were the religious creationists. They believed that other races had been separately created and hence were inferior and not related in any way. In stark contrast, it was evolution that clearly demonstrated this to be false and that we are in fact all related, and while there might be minor variations of appearance, we all have a common ancestry and all have the same heart and mind.
Evolution itself is also asserted to be a racist belief. However, the truth is that in stark contrast to the existing views on race at that time, Darwin showed that:
- People cannot be classified as different species
- All races are related and have a common ancestry
- All people come from “savage” origins
- The different races have much more in common than was widely believed
- The mental capabilities of all races are virtually the same and there is greater variation within races than between races
- Different races of people can interbreed and there is no concern for ill effects
- Culture, not biology, accounted for the greatest differences between the races
- Races are not distinct, but rather they blend together
Natural Selection at one stroke wipes out all justifications for racism, and so the claim that it is racist is utterly absurd. In his second great book, The Descent of Man, Darwin outlines all of the various ideas about race that existed at that time, and explains the details of the various ideas, and then proceeds to refute it all. Unfortunately, because of his writing style, it is easy for many to quote-mine stuff out of context and thus completely distort his views. Read it all and you quite clearly find a man who views all of humanity as essentially equal.
Although the existing races of man differ in many respects, as in colour, hair, shape of skull, proportions of the body, &c., yet if their whole structure be taken into consideration they are found to resemble each other closely in a multitude of points. Many of these are of so unimportant or of so singular a nature, that it is extremely improbable that they should have been independently acquired by aboriginally distinct species or races. The same remark holds good with equal or greater force with respect to the numerous points of mental similarity between the most distinct races of man. The American aborigines, Negroes and Europeans are as different from each other in mind as any three races that can be named; yet I was incessantly struck, whilst living with the Feugians on board the “Beagle,” with the many little traits of character, shewing how similar their minds were to ours; and so it was with a full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate.
… As it is improbable that the numerous and unimportant points of resemblance between the several races of man in bodily structure and mental faculties (I do not here refer to similar customs) should all have been independently acquired, they must have been inherited from progenitors who had these same characters.
– The Descent of Man
These are not the words of a racist, nor is he endorsing racism in any way, but is instead quite clearly and very robustly refuting racist thinking.
So happy Birthday Mr Darwin.
I do hope you will raise a glass or two with me today to salute the man who greatly expanded our understanding of our origins with compelling evidence, and so became one of the most influential figures in human history.