Subject: | Is Evolution Racist? Date: | 29 Mar 2009 Message-ID: | 1ixbfda.l208pjsc7klhNfirstname.lastname@example.org
> Is Evolution Racist?
> Seems so. The father of evolution has spoken such:
> Darwin spoke of the "gorilla" and the "Negro" [sic] as occupying
> evolutionary positions between the "Baboon" and the "civilized races
> of man" ("Caucasian"); viz: At some future period, not very distant as
> measured by centuries, the civilized 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 civilized
> state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as
> a baboon, instead of as now between the Negro [sic] or Australian and
> the gorilla.[49, 3] </quote>
> Darwin was wrong. Anthropomorphous apes have NOT been exterminated. The so
> called "savage races" are still here. ---- Which means everything Darwin
> claimed is wrong
John Wilkins replies:
First of all, what were known as the "anthropomoropus apes" are nearly extinct in the wild. Chimps are endangered, bonobos almost gone, gorillas in relict populations, orangutans are nearly out of territory in Borneo and Indonesia. In a few years, they will be gone. That is less than two centuries after Darwin wrote - which is *exactly* right - not very distant as measured by centuries indeed.
But as to whether Darwin was racist, I have this to say:
If you read Darwin sloppily, or to find evidence that he really was a Very Bad Man for rhetorical - usually religious - purposes, you soon come across this statement. In fact, you can find paraphrases of it in literally hundreds of creationist documents and sites. Here is the offending passage, from towards the end of chapter VI of the Descent:
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla. [p201]
Many folk read this to be making the following claims:
Let's look at a bit of context here. I do not propose to defend Darwin from his biases, but let's be quite clear on what they are first (and note, if Darwin turned out to be a baby eating white supremacist, it no more makes evolution false than the fact that most baby eating white supremacists are Christians discredits Christianity).
The full passage, which begins on the previous page is this:
The great break in the organic chain between man and his nearest allies, which cannot be bridged over by any extinct or living species, has often been advanced as a grave objection to the belief that man is descended from some lower form; but this objection will not appear of much weight to those who, convinced by general reasons, believe in the general principle of evolution. Breaks incessantly occur in all parts of the series, some being wide, sharp and defined, others less so in various degrees; as between the orang and its nearest allies—between the Tarsius and the other Lemuridæ [JSW: Tarsiers and Lemurs]—between the elephant and in a more striking manner between the Ornithorhynchus [JSW: platypus] or Echidna, and other mammals. But all these breaks depend merely on the number of related forms which have become extinct. At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.
The argument given here is not one of progress but of taxonomy. Darwin is arguing that there is no simple continuous "carpet" of forms of intermediates because breaks are formed by extinction. On Lamarck's older view in which there is constant evolution of forms along set lines, there ought to have been no such breaks - all taxonomic groups should be artificial and conventional or arbitrary. But Darwin is trying to convince his readers that this is not to be expected. The use of the term "organic chain" is one of many unfortunate terms Darwin uses here - it brings to mind the late medieval notion of a continuous scale or ladder of nature - but I think Darwin gets it from the critics he mentions, the ones who argue for a "missing link" in that chain. Missing linkism is a common criticism of Darwin still.
Then Darwin does something I would not have expected him to do, for reasons that I think will become clear, though no more admirable: he arrays human variation from "civilised" to "savage", with Europeans at one end, and great apes at the other. Why? He clearly doesn't need this - as far as he is concerned, according to his theory of common descent all human races must be equally evolved, and no races of humans need be especially more apelike than any other. I think Darwin exhibits here a failing he shows in the Origin and elsewhere: Darwin doesn't tell the difference between culture and biology. He has no nature/nurture distinction, and neither did anyone else much until the rise of genetics forty years after the Origin. So for him if a culture does well relative to other cultures, and extinguishes them, it must be the same sort of thing as when a variety of wolf replaces another by natural selection.
We can see this operating in the prior chapter, where Darwin tries rather unsuccessfully to deal with the vexed problem of the effects of natural selection on humans in a state of civilisation. At first he tries to argue, based on published ideas of W. R. Greg and those who responded to his essay, which I put up here, that contrary to the received wisdom of commentators at the time, natural selection doesn't fail with humans - while the "intemperate" may outbreed the intellectuals, their squalor leads to them dying more often. But under the influence, I think, of his cousin Galton, Darwin is forced to admit that this is not inevitable, and too often societies will "retrograde".
Then he tries to argue the beginnings of a cultural evolution view - we owe almost nothing to descent from the Greeks, but we owe much to their intellectual heritage. But then he moves immediately back to a biological selection process - Spain is surpassed because it had institutions that selected against better natures, like the Inquisition! And the English and their progeny America are obviously the result of natural selection.
But Darwin is more liberal than that - even civilised nations like Britain [!] have become so very rapidly, able to raise themselves in a few generations. And even religion has evolved: "The highest form of religion — the grand idea of God hating sin and loving righteousness—was unknown during primeval times" [p182]. He concludes that chapter by saying
To believe that man was aboriginally civilised and then suffered utter degradation in so many regions, is to take a pitiably low view of human nature. It is apparently a truer and more cheerful view that progress has been much more general than retrogression; that man has risen, though by slow and interrupted steps, from a lowly condition to the highest standard as yet attained by him in knowledge, morals, and religion.
So Darwin appears vague because, I think, he is confused. He lacks the distinctions necessary to make sense of the anthropological literature, itself imbued with racism from the common European heritage of the day. He concedes to the racism of his peers, but its a cultural racism, not a biological one, I think. Darwin is not so much a racist as he is a Eurocentrist. Of course, racism need not be at all biological to be racism.
One point that I think is important to stress: Darwin repeatedly lists what he thinks are facts about the future of this or that race or culture or society. This is in no way an endorsement. He says fairly clearly that to act in a way so as to eliminate the "inferior" one would do great harm to our better natures:
The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil. Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind;
But he then spoils the liberal effect by hoping for some direct action:
but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased, though this is more to be hoped for than expected, by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage. [p168]
Again the confusion. Why does Darwin do this? In the early days of a theory or new view, it is hard to puzzle out all the ramifications of the idea, and to isolate it from superficially similar ideas already in the air. Darwin's notion of evolution does not require progress, or inferior versus superior races, but he's being led down that path by the culture around him, and the fact, after all, that he is a member of a privileged class (historically fairly recently so) of an imperial society, with a history of devaluing those who were not in control. It turns out, Darwin is human after all.
This is not the first time Darwin backs down from his theory in the face of criticism by those who "know better". He failed to stick with his theory in the face of the common belief that inheritance was blending.Greg's, Wallace's and Galton's writings led him to conclude that natural selection doesn't work well in the case of Man; why, one cannot say. Haeckel, who is also often quoted as being in favour of baby eating (and wasn't), got it right when he wrote:
If, as we maintain, natural selection is the great active cause which has produced the whole wonderful variety of organic life on the earth, all the interesting phenomena of human life must also be explicable from the same cause. For man is after all only a most highly-developed vertebrate animal, and all aspects of human life have their parallels, or, more correctly, their lower stages of development in the animal kingdom. The whole history of nations, or what is called "Universal History," must therefore be explicable by means of "natural selection," — must be a physico-chemical process, depending upon the interaction of Adaptation and Inheritance in the struggle for life. And this is actually the case. [Haeckel 1880: p170]
It's a pity Darwin was not so forthright.
A nice discussion of the Great Chain and it's relation to racism is this paper by Bynum:
William F. Bynum, "The Great Chain of Being after Forty Years: An Appraisal", History of Science 13 (1975): 1-28.
Haeckel, Ernst Heinrich Philipp August. 1880. History of creation:
Or the development of the earth and its inhabitants by the action of
natural causes. A popular exposition or the doctrine of evolution in
general and of that of Darwin, Goethe, and Lamarck in particular.
Translated by G. R. Lankester. 2 vols. Vol. 1. New York: D. Appleton and
Company. Online at
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