Was Darwin a racist, and does evolution promote racism? – #DarwinDay (Hint … No)

charlesdarwin1Was Darwin a racist?

A claim often asserted by some 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.

Link: http://www.legis.state.la.us/leg_docs/01RS/CVT3/OUT/0000IGY1.PDF

This racist claim is quite pervasive in some strands of belief, if you google the term, “Darwin The racist” you will receive a flood of almost half a million hits – and that is quite frankly 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 to grasp might be speculation 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.

So what did he really believe?

Let’s 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 such phrases have been lifted out of context to twist their meaning 180 degrees.

The true racists of Darwins 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 he wrote it like that, 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.

Was Evolution used as Justification for Genocide?

A truly outrageous claim made is that evolutionary theory is truly evil because it provided Hitler and the Nazis with a scientific justification for the policies they pursued once they came to power.

To some, it might appear to be credible because of the full title of Darwins famous 1859 publication, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.”. They see the word “Race”, and make an assumption regarding the content of the book because they have not understood what the word “Race” actually means.

Does this fool truly intelligent people?

Apparently yes. As an example, Jerry Bergevin, a New Hampshire Legislator, made exactly this claim when he Linked Evolution With Nazis, and so introduced specific legislation to stop the teaching of evolution in schools

Link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/02/jerry-bergevin-evolution-columbine-nazis_n_1179589.html

Now, before we go any further, lets clarify the confusion regarding the word “Race”. His famous Origin of Species book introduced the scientific theory that populations evolve over the course of generations through a process of natural selection, and did so by presenting a body of evidence that the diversity of life arose by common descent through a branching pattern of evolution. It is a work of scientific literature, but was written for non-specialist readers.

Key Observation: The evidence in the book relates to animals and plants, not humans. “Oh”, some may say, “Then why does the title mention ‘races’?”.

What is going on here is that the word “Race” in Darwins work was used as a purely scientific term relating to phylogeny of animals and plants – scientific usage has altered so we would now use the word “species”. Darwin wrote in depth about races of barnacles, pigeons and plants (including cabbages). To actually understand that, you need to read the actual content and not just the title page, but quite clearly those making the claim have not done so. Today, the word “Race” is applied to humans only, but this was clearly not always the case,  Darwin, or for that matter, any other naturalist or biologist from that time, was using it in the way we now apply the word “species”.

To illustrate that, here are several random quotes to illustrate the use of the word Race from, “ Origin of Species” …

…it seems to me not improbable, that if we could succeed in naturalising, or were to cultivate, during many generations, the several races, for instance, of the cabbage, in very poor soil …

…When we look to the hereditary varieties or races of our domestic animals and plants, and compare them with species closely allied together, we generally perceive in each domestic race, as already remarked, less uniformity of character than in true species…

…Great as the differences are between the breeds of pigeons, I am fully convinced that the common opinion of naturalists is correct, namely, that all have descended from the rock-pigeon (Columba livia), including under this term several geographical races or sub-species…

Origin of the Species – Chapter 1

In was not until his 1871 publication, “The Descent of Man”, that Darwin applied the theory of evolution and sexual selection to humans. Once again, the use of the word “Race” was not as we understand it today.

Now lets return back to the claim that evolution was used to justify Genocide. Did Hitler ever cite anything written by Darwin in either public or private conversation? No, he never did, in fact I doubt he ever read anything by Darwin, because such books were banned.

Fact: Darwin’s books were banned in Nazi Germany, not endorsed.

Link: http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/burnedbooks/documents.htm

One part of the claim also often made is that evolution leads to atheism, which in turn leads to the Nazi’s, yet if you check that list of banned books, you should note that they also banned, “All writings that ridicule, belittle or besmirch the Christian religion and its institution, faith in God, or other things that are holy to the healthy sentiments of the Volk”. Most of the Nazi’s were in fact religious, a mix of Lutherans and Catholics, and that includes Hitler himself who remained a Catholic, so there is no evidence of any atheism here at all, but rather the complete rejection of non-belief.


When we think of the Nazi’s, a common word that often arises is “Eugenics”. This is the idea that you can improve the genetic composition of a population” by manipulating it. Let’s make one thing clear, this is a notion that uses  pseudoscientific notions of racial supremacy and purity, and has nothing to do with Darwin’s ideas. The idea of breeding and selecting the right people has been with us since the dawn of time. There are abundant examples,

  • The  concept of Royals only being permitted to marry other Royals in order to select and breed the ideal royal descendants
  • The concept of class
  • The Hindu concept of cast
  • Many tribes often lined up all the available brides and then choose on the basis of physical characteristics

What the Nazi’s did was to not simply attempt to breed the right people, but to eliminate the wrong people. That was not unique to them and has happened within other cultures that pre-date Darwin.

When faced with such ideas, Darwin himself rejected this as an un-allowable “evil” and that progress was open to all people, and there should be no laws to give favoritism to specific groups.

There should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring. Important as the struggle for existence has been and even still is, yet as far as the highest part of man’s nature is concerned there are other agencies more important. For the moral qualities are advanced, either directly or indirectly, much more through the effects of habit, the reasoning powers, instruction, religion, &c., than through natural selection; though to this latter agency may be safely attributed the social instincts, which afforded the basis for the development of the moral sense.

– Charles Darwin; The Descent of Man, 1871

Dr. Richard Weikart; From Darwin to Hitler

Mr Weikart is the high priest of the “Darwin to Hitler” claim and has an assortment of books that he has published with this assertion. Whenever you challenge the central claim, you will usually find that a reference to one of his books  is wheeled out in conjunction with a, “So there” comment.

Of his four books, the two of immediate interest include:

  • From Darwin to Hitler, Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics and Racism in Germany. (NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004) ISBN 1403965021
  • Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress. (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) ISBN 0230618073

If ever faced with these, do you then need to proceed to read and debunk this nonsense?

Nope, not at all, others have already done so. However, not only has it has been widely criticized by the academic community, but it has also been promoted by Christian creationists, specifically the infamous Discovery Institute who provided funding, so they will keep popping up.

As I have already demonstrated, Hitler was not a Darwinian, but was instead greatly influenced by writers who were opposed to evolution.

What happened during the Nazi period was truly horrendous, and must of course be exposed so that it never happens again. However, the claim that Darwin caused it is truly absurd, not just because there is not a jot of evidence to support that, but also because it was Darwin who took away the religious view of distinct races created by a god, and showed that there were no significant distinctions between the different variations of humanity. Fact based science is our best defence against such lunacy, not irrational creationist beliefs.

It is irrational fanatical belief that leads to atrocities. Even Martin Luther advocated the killing of imbecile children, because he believed they had been exchanged by Satan.

As for debunking Mr Weikart’s books, Hector Avalos, a professor of Religious Studies, wrote an essay “exposing the historical flaws found in the work of Weikart” and argued “that the defense of genocide, infanticide and “eugenics” by creationists actually has a very venerable and lengthy tradition that precedes Darwin

Link: http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Genocide.cfm

Social Darwinism

It is perhaps appropriate to also make a few observations regarding the term, “Social Darwimisn”.

It is a phrase that is used to describe the application of evolutionary theory to sociology and politics and has its roots in the 1870s.

  • It might have Darwin’s name, but its not his, and is instead linked with others, notably Herbert Spencer, Thomas Malthus, and Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics.
  • The term appears to implicitly claim that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection may be used to understand the social endurance of a nation or country, but it actually refers to ideas that predate Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species.
  • There is also considerable evidence that the entire concept of “social Darwinism” as we know it today was virtually invented by Richard Hofstadter in the 1940’s

In essence, it is cargo-cult science. None of the authors of this thinking actually employed evolutionary concepts, nor did they  adhere to the known evolutionary science of the time, and they more or less ignored the ideas and ethics of Charles Darwin. In addition to that, many of the ideas held by these various supposed thinkers, especially Herbert Spencer, have since been proven wrong by evolutionary science. They were not men of science, but instead gleaned generalities from popular evolutionary notions and deployed it to promote their pre-existing beliefs.

Today we still have many pseudo-science practitioners who will deploy popular concepts and lace their claims with terms such as “Quantum”, or perhaps quote mine Einstein in order to lend their crackpot ideas some credibility. In the same same manner, Darwin’s idea had become popular, and so others attempted to ride that bandwagon by associating their ideas with the popular concepts of the day. For example, Herbert Spencer,  argued for a “survival of the fittest” capitalism, which is of course not consistent with the actual theory of evolution at all.

Bottom line, do not be fooled by the term “Social Darwinism”, it is nothing to do with with evolution, and is not a credible application of evolutionary science.

A salute to Darwin

Darwin was indeed one of the true opponents of racism, he showed through careful study and evidence that we are all related. With his brilliant insight all claims and arguments that favour racism or eugenics are washed away. Gone is the nonsense that a supernatural entity created separate races, gone is the thought that superior people have the right to own other inferior people, and gone is the very concept of class, casts or breeding. The very idea that the “savages” were inferior and had no hope of ever living in a state of equality with whites was dashed upon the rocks of evidence-based reason.

As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shews us how long it is, before we look at them as our fellow-creatures. … This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings. As soon as this virtue is honoured and practised by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion.

The Descent of Man; Charles Darwin, 1871

4 thoughts on “Was Darwin a racist, and does evolution promote racism? – #DarwinDay (Hint … No)”

    • Feel free to make your case for that.

      (No reply will leave readers to assume that you can’t backup that claim)

  1. Thanks for the insight. I hadn’t heard this claim until today and am happy to have found refutation so easily.

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