Tuesday, June 26, 2018


One of the peculiar things about Darwin is that it is often difficult to know when we can trust something he says. In his letters, he sometimes, to put it frankly, sucks up to his correspondents. One example of this is in an early letter to his friend and mentor Charles Lyell. He adds a postscript claiming he has no idea what Lyell thinks of Lamarck, but he wants to reassure him that he took nothing from Lamarck. In fact, Darwin had to have known that Lyell disparaged Lamarck in his Principles of Geology. Darwin was being disingenuous when he claimed ignorance about Lyell’s thoughts on this.

In his published work, his sincerity can also at times be questioned because it may be something he offers for public consumption, but was not really committed to. In the published version of his Beagle Diary, he twice expresses melancholy for the Natives who are losing all their land (for the Maori in New Zealand and for the Indians in Argentina). The original Diary contains no such lament. He is more hard-hearted about the Native losses and their eventual extinction (as he also is in later work and letters). The melancholy might be in the published version because it had become customary for Europeans to express compassion for what was happening to Indigenous peoples. He needed to appear to be a proper civilized person. The melancholy properly disguises what he really thought.

I recently came across another example of Darwin’s occasional duplicity which I had previously been unaware of. It surprised me; a case where I thought Darwin was trustworthy turns out not to be the case. This again concerns Lamarck. In his early letters, he always denigrates Lamarck to his friends, even though in his private Notebooks, he has some good things to say about him. His public stance was always to put down Lamarck. But, as is well-known, in the “Historical Sketch” which he added to the third edition of Origin (under some pressure from people who thought he was taking too much credit for himself), he made it up to Lamarck and praised him to the skies. He did a better job for Lamarck in that Sketch than he did with anyone else he treated there; certainly much better than he did for Robert Chambers. I had always believed that Darwin was quite sincere in his praise for Lamarck.

What surprised me is that just a couple of years later, in a letter to Lyell, Darwin again attacked Lamarck. He called his work “a wretched book” and said he “gained nothing” from it. Then he righteously quoted his daughter Henrietta’s comment about how unfair it is that Lyell calls Darwin’s theory “a modification of Lamarck’s” (Lyell was not the only one to say this). In letters to friends and colleagues, he would profess humility and said he never claimed to take all the credit for evolutionary theory for himself. But the fact seems to be that Darwin did not like sharing the limelight. (Wallace was an exception to this probably because Wallace himself was so self-effacing and gave all the credit to Darwin, so Darwin did not mind sharing it with him.)

He had trouble admitting that he took the theory of evolution with him on his Beagle voyage; it had been given to him by Lamarck and his grandfather. Charles Darwin just wanted to see if he could find more evidence to confirm it. He did a lot of work on this, but he was building on the work of others. To claim that he gained nothing from Lamarck was ridiculous. Lamarck saw the greater probability of evolutionary theory, the gradual changes between species, the analogy of domestic productions, and the effect of external conditions on change in organisms (all of which Darwin admits in the “Historical Sketch”; he could see these things but he could not stick to admitting them). Darwin would have gotten nowhere if all this had not been given to him and if his grandfather Erasmus had not offered similar stimulation.

I can also recall something he took from Alfred Wallace and used in The Descent of Man, without giving Wallace credit (it was the point about the most patriotic men being out in front and dying in battle, and therefore not living long enough to give their good traits to the progeny they would never have). He also misquoted Wallace on another point which Wallace immediately pointed out on the first publication of Descent, but Darwin never corrected it. He was not filled with faults like these, but they come up enough times that one has to take care when reading Darwin.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer

Sunday, April 29, 2018


I continue to be amazed, and disheartened, by the way in which Charles Darwin’s racism is handled by the majority of scholars. Mostly, it is not handled at all; they prefer to write it out of history. But when some scholars do from time to time bring it up, they almost always understate it. In essays that are otherwise brilliant discussions of issues concerning colonialism, human rights, racism, anthropology, and any number of related matters, the same author who provides clear insights into these issues will either treat Darwin as a saint and/or minimize his racism and commitment to genocide.

Tom Lawson is a good example of this in his superb essay on Tasmania in a 2014 issue of the Journal of Genocide Research. He discusses the ways in which Britain has remembered and not remembered the genocide in Tasmania. Though some of his comments apply to our time, his focus is on the way they were memorializing this at the time of the events in question. They expressed regret at the demise of the Indigenous population and yet celebrated it as the triumph of their superior culture. Lawson is very hard on Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope for their racism and endorsement of the inevitability of genocide. But he applies a softer touch to  Darwin, even though just about everything he says about the racism of others applies just as well to Darwin.

There are two comments he makes about Darwin that I find rather odd. One is that Darwin “had been unwilling to declare the ‘extinction’ of ‘Aboriginal’ races inevitable in earlier publications” (i.e., earlier than The Descent of Man where genocide is treated as natural and inevitable). I have no idea what earlier publications he is talking about. Darwin always had an inclination to treat extermination as inevitable, even in The Origin of Species. While I am not aware of his using the word ‘inevitable’ in that book, his constant talk of the way the strong or dominant beat the weak and small has the whiff of inevitability about it. But I doubt that Origin is the book Lawson has in mind.

Lawson might be referring to the publication of Darwin’s Beagle Diary, which came out under various titles, the last being The Voyage of the Beagle. In that publication (the first edition being roughly two decades before Origin), he famously remarked, “The varieties of man seem to act on each other in the same way as different species of animals—the stronger always extirpating the weaker.” (A similar statement about the weak and strong would appear in the last sentence of Chapter VII of Origin.) While Darwin does not explicitly call this extirpation inevitable, it is certainly implied in that ‘always’.

In Darwin’s unpublished remarks, in his letters, you can see the same sentiment expressed over and over, and at times, more harshly. In a letter to Charles Lyell, he affirmed that the more intellectual races will exterminate the less intellectual. In a letter to Charles Kingsley, he stated that when all the lower races are gone, humanity as a whole will rise higher. Darwin tended to be more discreet in his published work, but he was no different in these views than Dickens and Trollope. So why give Darwin an easier time? What makes him worthy of being treated relatively as a saint?

The other odd comment Lawson makes is putting Darwin in the same camp as other humanitarians of his day and relying on Darwin’s abolitionism to do this. That is way off the mark. Darwin was not a humanitarian in the same vein as many of those in the Aborigines’ Protection Society (the example Lawson gives). They subscribed to the motto on the medallion struck by Darwin’s grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, which declared that all men are brothers. In one of his Notebooks, Darwin expressed doubts about this saying. The differences between the races of men spoke to him as contradicting this sentiment. Darwin believed that evolution created these stark differences in the descendants of a primordial ancestor. He was no believer in the idea that all men are brothers. That is not the direction evolution took.

Another truth about Darwin’s life is that in his Diary he expressed no problem with the enslavement of Indians in South America, particularly the children. He did not believe there was anything to complain of in their treatment. Despite the fact that his hero Alexander von Humboldt denounced the slavery of Indians, Darwin could not go along with it. He limited his abolitionism to African slavery. He was not in the same caliber as other humanitarians of his age.

There is no justification for making Darwin more humane that he actually was—except that this is the way almost everyone writes about Darwin. He has become such a saint that no one dares to defy the way mainstream academia has changed the facts of his real beliefs. By giving Darwin’s racism and genocidal ideas permission to go on unchallenged, we open the door to doing this for others as well. We are saying that racism and genocide are acceptable if someone of iconic status promotes them.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, March 29, 2018


Charles Darwin is not the only person in history who has had a great publicity machine working for him, with some of it being self-publicity.  One of the most cynical and true conclusions you can reach from an in-depth study of history is that publicity works. Not only does it succeed in creating a better and undeserved image for certain people, but it also succeeds at erasing the far more deserving people whose existence is a threat to the image created for the heroes we endorse.

Darwin was not a great humanitarian, and he was not the one who came up with evolution, nor was he the first to prove its greater probability. All these descriptions should go to others, but we have so lauded Charles Darwin that we have forgotten who these others were. His contemporaries, Robert Chambers and Georg Gerland, just to name two, did much more for a humane understanding of evolution, and Chambers promoted and proved his case for the probability of evolution 15 years before Darwin published. Darwin had great publicists, the others did not.

But, as I said, Darwin is not the only example of this. Thomas Jefferson comes to mind. Not only was he not the great believer in emancipation of slaves, he was not even the great constitutionalist he is still celebrated as. In one letter, he explained that obeying the law is only one duty of a public official and not the highest. A far greater duty, he thought, was to act for the self-preservation of the country, even if that meant breaking the law. He conceived that acquiring more land for the United States was for the good of the country, and went ahead with the Louisiana Purchase without a constitutional amendment to authorize it, though he thought an amendment was necessary. The Louisiana territory was too good a bargain to pass up or let constitutional niceties interfere with.

Today we would call it using national security to justify government actions. We forget how much Jefferson supported that. But his publicity machine still celebrates him as a man of pure principles. A better example of devotion to constitutional principle would be the first John M. Harlan. He was the lone dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) which established the separate but equal doctrine for blacks. Harlan was outraged. The Constitution, he argued, is color blind and does not authorize using laws to sanction race hatred. A few years later in Downes v. Bidwell (1901) he again dissented from a decision that exempted the newly acquired territories, after the Spanish-American War, from constitutional protections. The Constitution, as Harlan argued, does not envision the United States becoming a colonial power. But who remembers Justice Harlan today? He does not have that publicity thing going for him.

There are many more examples one could give, but I will give just one. The King James translators have always had the reputation of having made a great translation of the Bible. In the translators’ introduction to their work, they admitted this was not an original translation, but no one pays attention to that. They are still praised for something they never did (which, interestingly, is how someone once summed up Thomas Jefferson). Nine times out of ten, when the King James New Testament is quoted, it is William Tyndale who is being quoted. His translation was the main source the King James Version relied on. He still gets no credit. Tyndale was executed for his efforts, and the King James was handed all the glory for what was in reality his accomplishment.

The problem for me is not just that one person or group falsely gets all the fame. It is even more that we have been unfair to others and buried some people out of sight who deserve better. And even more, in some cases like that of Charles Darwin, by our unrealistic portrait of them, we implicitly condone some of the bad things they did. In Darwin’s case, by ignoring his racism and support of genocide, we send a message that these things are acceptable as long as the person who practices them is eminent enough. It is a terrible legacy to create.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, February 22, 2018


[This month I am putting up the same post on both my blogs; one is on the historical Jesus and the other is on Darwin’s racism. The link to the historical Jesus blog is http:historicaljesusghost.blogspot.com]

Last month on both my blogs, I posted two different brief essays about racism. I realize it is possible to endlessly refine one’s points, with the goal being to get to the essence of racism. There are different angles one can take, so I’d like to do some summing up here. Consider the following a case of thinking in progress.

First, racism is an action system, not a belief system. Racists do not believe in inferiority, but they do believe people can be made to feel inferior. The point for racists is to take actions that will not only deprive a people of well-being but make them believe they deserve this. Statements like “They are inferior” are part of this action system. It is an action intended to make Others believe and feel they are inferior. Racists know very well that inferiority is a lie, but they still think they can make it come true.

Second, racism is filled with many lies, but the idea that racists believe Others are inferior is the primary lie. They don’t believe this at all. The truth that racists always wish to conceal is that their primary goal is to demoralize Others and then convince them they were born demoralized. The demoralization is actually the result of all the actions, including verbal pronouncements, that racists take.

Third, the essence of the demoralization is to make these people believe they are less than human, or to put it another way, to believe they are separate and disconnected from other human beings. Feeling all alone in the world will certainly induce depression. Racists play the game of divide and conquer better than anyone. They will frantically combat those who teach that we are all connected.

Fourth, racists may be good at spotting vulnerabilities in people and exploiting them, but their main job is to create vulnerability. It is just like child abuse: To take someone who was not born vulnerable and make them feel vulnerable. Racists like child abusers hate it when their intended victims discover God or anything (like elements of their own culture) that gives them strength.

Fifth, there is a goal behind the primary goal of demoralization. Racists are not in this to play some kind of macabre game or conduct a vast social experiment as to how effective they can be in demoralizing Others and getting them to believe they are inferior and alone. The demoralization has a point to it. The ultimate goal is take everything from the Other. Once you demoralize a people, you can rob them blind. You can steal their land, their resources, their labor, and their memories and stories. Racists are thieves. In a sense, their only goal is larceny and they will do almost anything to conceal this.

Sixth, greed is behind all racism. Nobody is a racist just for the hell of it. They want something. They want everything. They want all the wealth and all the memories, but mainly all the wealth.

Seventh, since racism is an action system, not a belief system, this means that all true investigation into racism is also an action system. Gaining insights into racism is about undoing racism. If an insight does not contribute to defeating racism, then it is not a genuine insight. For example, exposing the larceny that is behind all racism is important because racists need to keep this a secret so that they can look more moral. They don’t mind being called ideological racists. That is a moral position as far as they are concerned. They are happy to be labeled racists. They love debates about inferiority and superiority because this just furthers their distorted view of the world. But to demonstrate that they are just stealing is what really scares them. They don’t want anyone to see how small they are.

Eighth, not all racists benefit equally from racism. Some get a lot more out of it than others. Somehow the big thieves make the smaller ones believe they have gotten more out of it than they really have. There is no honor among thieves.

Ninth, to combat racism it is absolutely vital not to do anything that favors their cause. Thus, racists, as I said, are very good at playing the game of divide and conquer. So it should be obvious that we must not do anything that plays into their hands. Promote connections, not disconnections. It is a big mistake for any victimized people to promote the idea that the racism practiced against them is totally unique. That just helps racists separate peoples. Each people does experience some unique injustices, but overall, they have more in common and that is what we should seek to understand. Don’t lose sight of the unique features but don’t exaggerate them either.

That is not quite a dozen points, but it will do for now. If anything, I would like to go in the other direction and reduce this number. I could refine our understanding of racism down to three important elements. Racism is 1) an action system, which is 2) intended to demoralize people (chiefly by getting them to believe they are inferior), so that 3) racists can rob them of everything. That is the entire scheme in a nutshell. And racists believe that their materialistic motives and ultimate goals must remain hidden. It is easier to steal if people don’t see what you are doing.

About Darwin, I will just add this. Darwin and many other scientists present themselves as out to discover what the world is like, through theory and experiments. They are out to gain knowledge. I think there might be a little bit of truth to this, but not as much as everyone thinks. Darwin and others were creating an action system. For example, “survival of the fittest” is not so much a description of the world as it is an action which is intended to fulfill itself. It is not an objective truth, it is rather an anthropomorphism framed to project European humans into nature. It is a point of view imposed on nature so that Europeans can declare themselves, through circular reasoning, the fittest and the winners—winners being a euphemism for “the biggest thieves.”

They were creating a system of “knowledge,” the aim of which was to reinforce imperialism. In a succinct way, in Chapter 8 of A Short but Full Book on Darwin’s Racism (available at all online vendors), I give a thorough discussion of how much implicit racism and blatant imperialism can be found in the pages of The Origin of Species. It’s true. Whether scholars want to see it or not is another story.

As for historical Jesus studies, my last post on the historical Jesus blog for January 2018 is about racism. By way of summary here, I will just say that there is not one book by a historical Jesus scholar which will leave you with an overwhelmingly positive impression of ancient Judaism. They all deprecate ancient Jewish culture in one way or another to make these Jews look inferior compared to Jesus. The best aspects of this culture are left out so that ancient Jews will look deficient and small-minded. Gone from scholarly books are Judaism’s dedication to constitutional government, fair treatment under the law, due process, and openness to gentiles. It is all gone and replaced by scholars with a trivialization of Judaism into excessive concern with rituals, purity, Temple sacrifice, and ethnic exclusivity. You will never read a book on the historical Jesus and feel good about ancient Judaism, unless it’s my book True Jew. And if you are Jewish, it is particularly disheartening to read the usual stuff about the historical Jesus, which is why most Jews avoid this subject altogether.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer

Sunday, January 28, 2018


[My two books on Darwin are available at online vendors. The 800 page tome is Darwin’s Racism: The Definitive Case. The 200 page condensation is A Short but Full Book on Darwin’s Racism.]

In my big book on Darwin, I emphasized that racism is not primarily a belief system. It is an action system aimed at making a targeted group feel inferior and then taking everything else from them or denying them everything. Verbal pronouncements, such as “They are inferior”, are very much a part of that action system. “They are inferior” is not a belief, it is an action intended to create feelings of inferiority. But that is not what I would point out as the most essential thing about racism. There is something else about racism that is very pernicious and survives every attempt to defeat it. It continues even when racists lose a battle here and there, and it follows from being an action system. It is simply this: to lay the blame on the allegedly inferior group for everything that goes wrong in their attempts to better their lot.

One of the biggest battles that racists lost was the emancipation of slaves. But that did not even put a dent in racism. There was a lot of talk on the part of liberals about how slavery had debased blacks and how they were not ready for freedom. If emancipation was to succeed, former slaves would have to be lifted up, and if this did not happen, blacks would continue to live debased lives. But the onus was almost always put on blacks. People gave very little thought to the obstacles that whites were throwing in the way of blacks. Those obstacles were mainly in the form of laws denying them rights (such as the right to vote). This also included white rioting. When blacks did manage to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, they were only a white riot away from being pulled down again, as whites attacked and destroyed black businesses.

The interesting thing is that most liberals totally admitted that white people had denigrated slaves and deteriorated the lives of black people in the first place through slavery, but if black lives did not improve after emancipation, that was their own fault. Whites were not to blame for the failures of blacks and for keeping them down through harsh laws and the denial of civil rights. Even though the initial degradation was the fault of whites, the continuing degradation was the fault of blacks for not improving themselves.

The same was done to Indians. Indians would have to learn the white man’s ways, if their lives were to get any better. The deprivation they were continually subjected to by whites was not the problem. What racism did was to shift the conversation always onto the shoulders of blacks and Indians, so that no one paid attention to how whites manipulated the system to serve themselves alone. Only a handful of humanitarians objected to this mischievous misrepresentation of the facts.

In 1796, when Judge St. George Tucker of Virginia published and submitted his gradual emancipation plan to the legislature of his state, he made it clear that the ultimate goal was to get rid of all blacks from Virginia. He knew emancipation in the northern states had not worked out to the benefit of slaves who were still subjected to an onerous system of what he called civil slavery. His emancipation plan specifically called for civil slavery in the hope that this would be so bad that blacks would voluntarily remove themselves from Virginia. Tucker was by no means a liberal, despite his abolition plan. Integration of blacks into society was the last thing he wanted.

But Tucker made two interesting observations. One was the usual one that slaves had been forced to lead debased lives and thus were not ready for freedom. The other was a little more unusual. He noted that slavery had made whites were unfit for equality. The practice of slavery had made white people arrogant and unable to treat blacks fairly. But while Tucker thought former slaves would need uplifting to prepare them for freedom, he made no suggestion that whites needed any education to accept the equality of blacks.

Darwin fits this pattern to a T. His inquiries into the lives of savages always take the form of “what’s wrong with them?” When Darwin looks into the causes of what he believes is the inevitable extermination of savages tribes throughout the world (the darker skinned people), he lays it all on the inferiorities or inadequacies of Native peoples. His favorite cause of extermination is the infertility of Native women. He never asks himself if white people are doing anything to keep the birth rate down. Lessened fertility is a fault in savages. They are biologically inferior. Darwin always stresses biology. Even what he regards as the inferior morality of savages is an issue of biological inheritance for him. Nature made them that way.

Compare, or contrast, Darwin to a contemporary, Herman Merivale whose lectures on colonization were published in the 1840s and republished in the 1860s. Merivale too wrote about the causes of extermination of savages, but his concern was to understand the causes so that extermination could be prevented. Behind his inquiry are the questions “What is wrong with us?” and “Why are we doing this to them?” Darwin shows no concern to stop the extermination. His investigation into its causes serves to promote the inevitability of it. He was always on the lookout for deficiencies in Native peoples. Merivale and Darwin were worlds apart, though they were writing about the same subject.

When Darwin accepts the adage “Never, never trust an Indian,” it prevents him from seeing this any other way. He read another contemporary author who pointed out that subjugated people will resort to lies and deception as a survival tactic; in other words, they are not inherently untrustworthy, it is just what they do from time to time to defeat what the conqueror is doing to them. This had no impact on Darwin—which is ironic when you consider that Darwin was the supposed expert on survival. Darwin’s essential racism was that he was looking for what is wrong in dark skinned people to explain their failure to adjust to European colonialism. Injustice was never the issue for him. He could never see that imperialism had made white people unfit for equality and humane treatment of the Other.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, December 28, 2017


A.N. Wilson’s biography Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker was released here in America on December 12, 2017. It first came out in Britain back in September and I put up my review on this blog in October. I have since posted an abridged version on Amazon.

What I find most puzzling about the book is that Wilson clearly wants to point out Darwin’s failures, yet he passes over Darwin’s two biggest faults: his racist ideas about Indigenous peoples and his commitment to genocide. I understand why idolizers of Darwin omit these things from their discussions, but why does Wilson let Darwin off the hook for his unscientific assessment of non-European people? I cannot think of any reason, unless it is that Darwin’s defects reflect the wider problems in his society and perhaps it is that society that Wilson wants to protect.

Wilson’s discussion of Darwin’s ideas occupies a smaller portion of the book. The larger portion is devoted to straightforward biography, and as a biography, there seems little to justify why Wilson wrote another one. Other than criticizing Darwin’s theory of natural selection, there is little purpose in again going over the well-known details of his career and life. But there is one biographical detail Wilson offers which still bothers me because it offers an incomplete picture of the issue. I did not bring it up in my review, so I will do so now.

Wilson mentions that Darwin had one daughter’s cat destroyed because it had mauled one of his pigeons. I suppose Wilson means to imply that Darwin had a cruel streak in him. But this raises the issue of Darwin’s attitude towards animals and here Wilson fails to deliver.

Generally, Darwin is remembered for his hatred of cruelty to animals. There are a number of anecdotes about this which I relate in my long book Darwin’s Racism: The Definitive Case (in my other book A Short but Full Book on Darwin’s Racism, I skip this issue). But the other side of Darwin is that he believed animals served human beings. He was opposed to any efforts to end experimentation on live animals, if these were necessary to advance medical research. Restrictions, yes. He believed experiments should be performed with anesthetics when possible. But if that were not possible without ruining the experiment, then he was fully in favor of going ahead with it, no matter the pain to the animal. Even when anesthetics were used, Darwin does not seem to have given any thought to how the animal would feel in recovery.

It is not the most important issue in Darwin’s life (which is why I did not bring it up in my review or in my short book), but to drop one detail about killing a cat, as Wilson does, without telling the fuller story is not really fair.

© 2017 Leon Zitzer

Friday, November 24, 2017


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