Darwin was a racist!

This is another archival repost, first published on the old blog in Nov 2007.

Accusations of racism have been flying these past few weeks, but in the heat of the moment, the discussions have been more noise than signal. This week’s Friday Creationism looks at an old accusation of racism: Darwin. Darwin is rightly celebrated by history as the father of the theory of evolution, and his ideas are amongst the most important in science. As a result, attacking Darwin is an oft used distraction in the absence of any scientific argument. Indeed, scientific argument is not the principal motivation of creationists, and a lot more noise is made about the perceived ethical implications of evolution. Science, however, is descriptive and not prescriptive; it is interested in the truth, and while truth can inform ethics and policy, it is not a synonym for them. The wonderful and terrible thing about truth is that it doesn’t give a damn what its perceived ethical implications are. Indeed, as they are a diversionary tactic that have no bearing on the truth, they can be classified as examples of the fallacy of appeal to consequences. I will discuss the issue of ethical consequences as creationist motivation a little more on Monday; for now I shall ask: was Darwin racist?

I am not a cultural relativist: different cultural norms and traditions are no excuse for behaving despicably. However, cultural context is important for understanding what motivates despicable behaviour. Darwin lived in the Victorian era, when all white gentlefolk were, by today’s standards, racist. This includes not only the founders of evolutionary biology, but also the founders of the anti-evolution movement. When everybody around you is racist, when racism is broadcast from the pulpit and dispatch box, and when racism is justified by a constant stream of anecdotes about white superiority, it is very easy to justify one’s own racist tendencies to oneself. When prejudice and discrimination are so widespread they becomes self-fulfilling: when a group is downtrodden, and no individuals are given the chance to improve their situation or develop their talents, one can take it as evidence of their innate inferiority and barbarity. Consequently, we should heap greater praise on those who did manage to break out of these intellectual bonds and question the status quo. A very similar situation to Victorian racism can be seen with misogyny and homophobia in many religious communities today: they are so pervasive that it takes great effort to break free from them.

Darwin perhaps failed to go all the way in escaping the intellectual shackles he had been given by society, but he went much further than most at that time. In the Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin’s egalitarian views are clear. On slavery he writes: “It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty.” (Voyage ch 21) Darwin was already an abolitionist when he joined the Beagle at the age of 22, and the voyage not only confirmed his belief that, even though they may be inferior, it was wrong to keep other races as slaves, it made him question the universal assumption that other races actually were inferior. On the voyage, Darwin socialised with Fuegians who had been educated in Britain. While describing the Fuegian tribes as “savages”, he recognised in the intelligent Jemmy Button and fast-learning multi-lingual Fuegia Basket, the ability of individuals from these tribes to become “civilised” if given the opportunity (Voyage ch 11). Creationists go only so far as quoting Darwin describing the tribesmen as “savages”. The term may, even then, have been to some extent pejorative in many contexts, but it simply meant people outside of Western “civilisation”. It’s difficult to predict which of today’s terms will be seen as politically incorrect by future generations, but we can be sure that many of the innocent things we say today will be unspeakable in the future.

At a time when his contemporaries were justifying slavery by classifying Africans, Australians and South Americans as inferior species, half way to being Gorillas, Darwin unified humanity as one species, and argued fiercely for abolition. For that, he should be celebrated as a progressive.

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