Last month, I posted my review of A.N. Wilson’s Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker (published in Britain in September, but not available here until December). Despite his criticisms of Darwin, he goes very easy on Darwin’s racism, in effect excusing it as being part of another culture that we should not judge by our standards. It is a nonsensical defense of Darwin, but quite common. Recently, I discovered another article that also minimizes Darwin’s strong racist proclivity.
There is so much that is wrongly slanted in the essay “Apes, Essences, and Races” by Brendan O’Flaherty and Jill S. Shapiro in the collection Race, Liberalism, and Economics (2004; edited by David Colander and others). I am talking about the part of the article that deals with Charles Darwin. They acknowledge Darwin’s racism, but do everything they can to soften it. They blame other scientists and even Darwinists for promoting racism, but in Darwin’s case, they make his racism seem like an accident that went against what his theory really stood for.
The authors write, “Darwin unintentionally bolstered the idea of fixed types, reinforcing, instead of undermining, essentialistic thinking.” There was nothing unintentional about it. Darwin was devoted to identifying superior and inferior groups. But these authors think “it was all too easy to misinterpret his meaning to see races as forming an evolutionary scale,” completely missing that this is exactly what Darwin was striving for. Darwin suggested to his cousin Francis Galton that Nature uses superior individuals to create new and better races. These authors fail to confront how deeply embedded racism was in his view of nature. Even in Origin, he constantly promotes the view that nature is a scheme of groups subordinate to groups. Higher and lower figure in Origin as much as in his later work in Descent.
O’Flaherty and Shapiro state that as a result of Darwin’s Origin, “Humankind was once again united as one species, now the product of evolutionary processes.” But the idea that humanity was one had long been the prevailing view (they do recognize this and give it appropriate attention). Breaking up humanity into separate species was relatively new. Darwin did nothing to reverse that. He rather encouraged it. He hardly united humankind when he insisted how divided the races were in intelligence and moral values.
These authors call racist essentialism “the direct antithesis of Darwin's focus on populational variability.” But Darwin’s ideas about variability did not affect his greater stress on the differences from group to group. In Descent, he would argue that disparity in brain size cannot tell us anything about the relative intelligence of two individuals, but when averages are taken, it can tell us a lot about the differences between human groups, and then he went on to cite statistics that put Australian Aborigines at the low end of cranial capacity. When these authors discuss 19th century scientific racism in the study of the brain and cranium, they leave out Darwin’s embrace of this.
Racism worked itself deeply into Darwin’s thinking. That is the Darwin no one wants to remember. The authors list (on p. 36) eight European scientists who advocated the belief that non-Europeans were biologically inferior. They do not include Darwin, yet he belongs there as much as anyone (he even argued in Descent that moral qualities were inheritable and that this would explain the differences between human races). Most staggering to me is that when the authors get to their brief discussion of the European belief in the extinction of inferior races, they once again fail to even mention that Darwin too was fully committed to this genocidal idea.
The authors are certainly right when they say, “Darwin did not provide any new facts about humans or refute any old ones.” But that was the point for Darwin. He wanted to justify what Europeans already believed about race. He did not want to overturn anything. O’Flaherty and Shapiro miss this. They still think of Darwin as revolutionary and later Darwinists as regressive: “Darwinism was thus compatible with the idea that each race has its own essence, so the idea of racial essence survived the Darwinian revolution intact.” In fact, Darwin performed no revolution. He was as stuck with and firmly believed in racial categories as many other scientists of his day.
These two authors call later Darwinism with its emphasis on inequality of the races a “skewed take on Darwinian theory.” There was nothing skewed about for Darwin. Darwin believed that producing inequality was one of the major results of evolution. Some people did oppose this racializing of the world, but O’Flaherty and Shapiro tend to skip the true humanitarians of the time who defied the idea that savages or dark-skinned people were inferior in mind and body to Europeans.
With respect to animals too, they try to make Darwin seem like a great revolutionary. “In regard to apes, Darwin's ideas served to provide a natural, not merely a conventional and nominal, tie between them and humans.” The truth is that for Darwin, the tie was more nominal than real. In Descent, Darwin imagines that if an ape could talk, it would have to admit that it was inferior to human beings in every way. Inferior-superior, or lower-higher, was an important category to Darwin. It was always on his mind, whether he was considering animals or humans.
I must note here one part of this article by O’Flaherty and Shapiro that I found invaluable. They emphasized that many of the older natural scientists, such as Linnaeus, Buffon, and Blumenbach, who studied human groups, did not rank human beings in a hierarchy. They treated all humans as equal in rank, varying with the environment. They recognized that differentiating human groups was a somewhat arbitrary process. These early naturalists were much less judgmental than later scientists would be—which makes the next point so interesting. (These naturalists were not entirely free of judgments. For example, they believed environmental conditions could make one group ugly and another beautiful.)
One interesting trend the authors spot makes their exemption of Darwin especially odd. At the very beginning of their article, the authors point out that, as evidence about races accumulated in the 19th century, the science of races became worse and worse. Knowledge did not help to dispel a wrongheaded racism, it just more deeply entrenched it. What they miss is that this was as true for Darwin as for other scientists of the day. In Descent, he was eager to latch onto any reports of evidence that put darker skinned people closer to animals than white Europeans. We may all be descended from lower animals, according to Darwin, but he also believed that some human groups retained that close connection more than others. From almost every angle, Darwin introduced a racist perspective into evolutionary thinking.
The authors conclude that while some scientists were discovering that distinguishing human races was a futile exercise, racist thinking went on: “There was still faith in the reality of racial distinctions that were innate, biologically based, and, through their relative worth, indicative of evolutionary success.” What they refuse to admit is that Darwin contributed to this. Every word of their conclusion (innate, etc.) applies just as much to Darwin’s science.
Why does any of this matter? Many people would argue that as long as scientists and scholars today reject scientific racism and seek to expose it whenever it appears, the racism of a scientist of long ago does not matter. I can think of several responses to this. First, there is a kind of hypocrisy in this argument. If scholars today were so kind to all racists of the past, then understandably Darwin could be included in this generosity, But current scholars do think the racism of yesterday’s academics matters because they identify and discuss 19th century racist scientists and academics all the time; they simply omit Darwin’s contribution or understate it.
Second, by playing down the severity of Darwin’s racism, they are sending a message that racism is acceptable if it is expressed by a big enough name. Third, one has to wonder how many other exceptions they are willing to make. Would their dismissal of racism stop with Darwin? Is he the only favored racist in history? And will such generosity be extended to anyone in the future? Fourth, and perhaps most important, as the German Jesuit Max Pribilla said in the 1930s, sometimes the truth has to be told for no other reason than simply that it is true—because if we don’t, the world suffers a moral blow that will be very hard to recover from.
It is that last reason that applies especially to Darwin. Darwin’s racism was not slight. It went very deep. If we let him off the hook because of his status, it sends two messages: 1) we value personality and power more than truth; and 2) we allow racism to continue in insidious ways. Academia says that it holds truth to be the most important, even sacred, object of our studies. Yet it often promotes exceptions to this and for no discernible good reason. When students encounter Darwin’s work, especially in The Descent of Man, they can see how obvious his racism is and then they go to their professors who either deny it or dismiss it. What’s up with that? There are no good lessons to be drawn from this dishonest treatment of what Darwin said.
If we grant racism a safe place or a hiding place anywhere, whether in Darwin or in anyone else, we have no hope of defeating it. Racism is hard enough to defeat anyway, maybe impossible, why give it any extra help?
© 2017 Leon Zitzer