Wednesday, September 28, 2016


[My book Darwin’s Racism is now available at Amazon and all online booksellers.]

A few weeks ago, I heard a caller on a radio talk show say that he knew history as well as anyone else and then proceeded to argue for some very conservative solutions to certain current problems. I have no doubt that the caller knew history as well as anyone (he acknowledged that some bad things happened in the past). The question is how well does anyone really know what happened before we got here. I think the answer is not very well at all.

If I tossed out a dozen or so items of some significance, a handful of people would know some of these things and some would know other bits, but nobody would get them all. Everyone would be shocked by at least half the items on the list, though it would be a different half for each person.

How many people know that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States did not quite abolish all slavery as we are usually told? It contained an important exception: “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” It was used in the years following the Civil War, in the South, especially in Texas, to re-enslave many black men by arresting and convicting them on some charge and then putting them to work without pay.

Did you know that the Declaration of Independence contains an implied approval of greed for Indian land? One of the complaints made against the King of England in that document is that the King has imposed restrictions on “the conditions of new appropriations of lands.” What Jefferson may have had primarily in mind was the Proclamation of 1763. White settlers were supposed to stay east of a certain line and stop encroaching on Indian land. Americans did not like that. The Declaration of Independence was, in this one small way, also a declaration to steal all the Indian land, if they could not get Indians to legitimately sell it.

How many people know that in the early 19th century, free blacks, with only some occasional exceptions, were not allowed to participate in patriotic observances such as the July 4 celebration? They could observe white people celebrating, but blacks were not allowed to join in. This was primarily in the New England states, which had gradually abolished slavery many decades before the Civil War. Not only did the American Revolution for independence, liberty, and rights pass African-Americans by (even when freed, they were not allowed civil rights), but so did the celebrations of the Revolution and other holidays, as if to reinforce the idea that liberty would not apply to them, not even to free blacks. Blacks of course held their own annual parade to honor the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Segregation, even in holiday observances, goes way back in our history.

Then there’s the history of riots in America. Since the civil rights era in the 1960s, we live with the impression that a riot means blacks rioting against the white establishment. That’s the image we all have. But for the entire history of this country before then, riots were always by whites out to destroy black neighborhoods. Black prosperity could not be tolerated. There were many such riots and they continued well into the 20th century.

That’s just a few examples of what we almost never think about as part of our historical heritage and the same can be done for Charles Darwin. Most people, including scholars, know much less than they pretend to know. Everyone praises Darwin for being opposed to slavery, but hardly anyone tells you how limited his opposition was. He was opposed to legalized slavery, but as far as I know, he expressed no concerns about illegal slavery or forced labor. He never showed any sympathy with the complaint that colonialism was the equivalent of slavery, some even arguing that it was worse.

I recently saw a blog which claimed that Darwin inherited his grandfather Josiah Wedgwood’s sentiment that all men are brothers (as inscribed on the Wedgwood medallion, depicting a slave in chains pleading “Am I Not a Man and a Brother”). That’s not accurate. Darwin actually questioned that view in an early Notebook entry in which he acknowledged that civilized men and Christians may believe all men are brothers, but Darwin had to add his own comment, “yet differences carried a long way.” He definitely did not believe that all men are brothers.

Darwin utilized the theory of evolution to emphasize what he believed were the widening gaps between the races of men. The differences loomed large for him. He believed evolution produced drastic, hierarchical differentiation. People forget too the historical context. In the 19th century, it was entirely possible to be an abolitionist and at the same time an extreme racist. Thomas Huxley, Joseph Hooker, and Anthony Trollope are just three examples, in addition to Darwin. Hundreds more could be listed.

With history, we are better at forgetting and erasing than we are at remembering. It never seems to change. The study of history should be a continual searching for the things we have missed. But most scholars have stopped doing that. We are not even curious anymore. We would rather just keep repeating what we think we know. Our presumed knowledge gets in the way of seeing. Ideology wins over the facts and we don’t see the great danger in that.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Monday, August 29, 2016


We all know that memory is selective. That is not news for most of us. But it is shocking to realize just how selective it can be. Some of the things we (as a culture and as individuals) suppress are so big, it is amazing that we let ourselves get away with it.

In New England, they have long had a proud tradition of remembering that they were the first in the nation to abolish slavery. Over a century before the Civil War ended slavery in the South, Connecticut and Rhode Island passed gradual emancipation plans. In Massachusetts, it is more of a mystery as to how dismantling slavery came about—most likely it was a combination of public opinion, legal cases, and a clause in the Massachusetts constitution guaranteeing freedom and equality for all—but here too slavery was considered banned.

So strong was the impression of New England’s noble attitude that, for a long time, many New Englanders believed either that slavery had never existed there or that it was very mild. What they had a harder time remembering was that freed slaves were not treated as equal citizens. But that’s not the part that shocks me. (Though it should. One contemporary in 1796 acknowledged at one and the same time that denying civil rights was such a bad thing to do that it could be called civil slavery and then insisted they had a right to do it because every society can decide who gets to participate in civil rights and who doesn’t.)

New England remembered itself as the birthplace of American patriotism and freedom. They celebrated the heroes of the Revolution. But they chose not to remember that some of these heroes were black men who served in the Revolutionary army. They erased black soldiers from history. In one case I read about long ago, they literally erased one such man. If I recall, there was a famous painting made in the 1790s which depicted American patriots in battle. One of them was black. When the painting was reproduced in textbooks for children, the black soldier was removed.

Why do that? Why not remember that black and white soldiers fought alongside each other? And how could they champion emancipation of slaves and then deliberately fail to remember the many black men fighting in the same cause they all participated in? One answer is that emancipation served more to promote the self-image of white people as true believers in freedom than to help the freed slaves who would never be granted full civil rights. And the removal of black people from the history of the Revolution had something to do with the same racism that denied civil rights.

Whatever your answer is, this stands as a grand example of the selectivity of historical memory.

Everywhere you look, you can find more examples of incredibly shocking deletions. In The Descent of Man, Darwin expressed his firm belief in the moral and intellectual inferiority of savages. He was convinced that savages would never help a stranger, whereas Europeans would, (“humanity is an unknown virtue” in savages, he would write) and gave his full assent to a Spanish maxim “Never, never trust an Indian.”

Darwin had completely forgotten that, in his younger days, in the Diary he kept while on board the Beagle, he had given examples of South American Indians helping strangers, often shipwrecked European sailors. Of the Patagonian Indians, he noted “their usual disinterested noble hospitality.” (In later published editions of his journal, the word ‘noble’ was dropped.) None of this made it into Descent. It is one good sign of how hardened Darwin’s racism became in his later years. He chose not to remember some of the good qualities in native peoples that he himself had some acquaintance with.

Darwin erased hospitable savages from the world just as surely as those textbooks erased a black man from a painting, and for the same reason: So he could create his own painting which bore no resemblance to the real world. This was selective memory in the service of bad anthropology.

I could go on and on with other examples, like the failure of scientists today to remember that, fifteen years before The Origin of Species, Robert Chambers assembled much of the same evidence for evolution (the common descent of species) that Darwin would. He was in fact the first to prove that evolution was a more probable theory than special creation. But scientists and scholars have chosen to erase this from historical memory. It is that kind of selectivity that takes my breath away. These are the kinds of cases that make one think deep unconscious forces are at work.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Friday, July 29, 2016


Finally it is here and available at all online book vendors. The title is: Darwin’s Racism: The Definitive Case, Along with a Close Look at Some of the Forgotten, Genuine Humanitarians of That Time. It is easy enough to find. Just search for the words, Darwin racism, and my book is the first or one of the first books that comes up.

I don’t think I need to say anything else for the moment. At sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, you can read a description of the book or see the Table of Contents. I have also repeated these things in some of the recent posts below. Just scroll down a bit to May for the Contents.

And when I say the definitive case in the subtitle, it really is.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, June 25, 2016


I don’t think one can find any two worldviews that are further apart than the worldviews of Charles Darwin and John Locke. One could even say they are downright opposed. One championed a hierarchy of beings, with favor given to the stronger and more dominant, and the other believed in equality of rights with no distinction between the more powerful and the weaker.

This might be an unfair comparison to make if Darwin had been strictly a biologist, while Locke was engaged in political philosophy. But Darwin did not stick to flora and fauna. He was happy to apply natural selection to human societies. He may not have always gone as far as other Social Darwinists, but he did choose to make pronouncements about the human situation. He thought about what was good and bad for human society and, in the answers he gave, he was very different from Locke.

Locke denied that the stronger over the weaker was a natural law. He was not saying that this never happens. He was a realist. The weak do get screwed and often. But he held that it was a violation of natural right. Whatever is extorted by force, he said, is “without Right … [and] bind[s] not at all.” For him, it was a fundamental law of nature that the small and weak never lose their basic rights. Disputes should be resolved by negotiation or mutual consent, not by force. There is nothing like negotiation in Darwin’s system of thought.

There were many humanitarians (in Darwin’s time and earlier) who thought like Locke. Saxe Bannister, Attorney General for New South Wales in the mid-1820s, said that “rights are never forgotten.” Respecting the rights of the smaller nations and indigenous peoples was a major theme for humanitarians. One cannot say the same for Darwin.

About 70 years after Locke, Emer de Vattel wrote a highly respected treatise on international law. He put it as memorably as anyone ever has: “A dwarf is as much a man as a giant; a small republic is no less a sovereign state than the most powerful kingdom.” There is “a perfect equality of rights between nations.” Thus, every nation has a right to resist by force if another nation endangers the safety and welfare of its own society. The powerful do not have more rights in this regard, and the weak do not have fewer rights. Locke would agree.

This is very different from Darwin’s world and, I would say, more realistic. Darwin was a strict imperialist. He believed a stronger nation has a right to go around imposing itself on weaker nations. “Man is not an intruder,” he wrote in one of his Notebooks. Man, particularly European man, has a right to invade and intrude and bring its own jurisdiction along with its intrusion. His vision was of mankind in a kind of eternal state of warfare, until a stalemate of power was achieved.

But the humanitarians saw it differently. Realistically, man is an intruder and therefore has to learn to be a negotiator. That’s what human beings do. Sometimes they make war, but more often, they bargain and reach peaceful agreements. They do this based on an understanding that Locke, among others, promoted. We all have rights and have to learn to get along. The weak have to be protected to make sure they never lose the same rights they share with the more powerful.

One could say the questions are: What is the essence of being human or being a human cultural group, and what rights go along with this essence? For Locke, Vattel, and many others, size did not matter. For Darwin, it very much did.

In an imperialist age, it was the Darwinian vision that proved the more appealing. But Locke’s thoughts never went away. They just snuck underground.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


Darwin's Racism: The Definitive Case, Along with a Close Look at Some of the Forgotten, Genuine Humanitarians of That Time should be available on book sites, like Amazon, in the next 4 to 6 weeks.

In the meantime, I thought I would list the chapter titles:

1  Evolutionary Theory is Safe

2 Savages: The Polished and the Melancholy

3 Racism: By Any Other Name

4 Slavery, Emancipation, and Continuing Racism

5 Evidence, Evidence, Evidence

6 Man in The Origin of Species

7 Some Lessons from Mathus

8 Something Happened Before Darwin Arrived

9 What a Difference a Worldview Makes

10 Euphemisms Be Damned

11 Genocide By Any Other Name

12 Restoring Messiness to History

It's a big book.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


As I am busy finishing proofreading and indexing my book, I won't post anything this month.  The title of the book is Darwin's Racism: The Definitive Case, Along With a Close Look at Some of the Forgotten, Genuine Humanitarians of That Time.  I hope it will be available by June.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


[Part 1 is the previous post, the one for February 2016. I usually post once a month at the end of the month. I am posting earlier this time, so it will follow soon after Part 1.]

Sometimes the news throws up reports on the most diverse subjects, which can lead us to make the oddest connections. Along with a debate about reparations, recent news items have told us about the detection of gravitational waves, confirming part of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. It has produced a lot of excitement. For one thing, there is a hope that new technological devices will ensue. Whenever we discover anything in the west, the first thing scientists start thinking about is how this will give us more domination and control over nature.

But there is more. In response to one person’s query as to what good is this, one scientist, or perhaps it was a journalist who writes on science, responded that one might as well ask what good is Beethoven or Bach. There is a beauty to scientific theories about the universe that is worth pursuing for its own sake. Yes, there is. I agree. But I wonder why we never say that about humanitarian ideas.

There is an incredible beauty in the idea that an attack on humanity anywhere is an attack on humanity everywhere. But how many people really believe that? We consider it deeply problematic, a very big pain in the ass, to defend human rights everywhere. There is the danger, the economic costs, diplomatic considerations. Too much of an emphasis on human rights will interfere with material progress which always comes first. Human rights are something that can be put on the backburner. Humanitarian ideals are nothing like Beethoven or Bach. Great music doesn’t make us feel guilty the way our failures in humanitarianism do. We don’t celebrate humanitarians of the past the way we celebrate Bach or Einstein. We would rather forget.

(In what follows, all emphases in quotations from old authors are original to these authors.)

In the late 17th century, John Locke wrote that when an “Aggressor … unjustly invades another Man’s Right, [he] cannever come to have a Right over the Conquered …” He compares such unjust rulers to robbers and pirates. An unjust conqueror is like a robber who gains title to a man’s estate by holding a dagger to his throat. “The Injury and the Crime is equal, whether committed by the wearer of a Crown, or some petty Villain. The Title of the Offender, and the Number of his Followers, make no difference in the Offence, unless it be to aggravate it.” Think of what Locke is saying: Not only does might or status not make right, but it makes for less right and magnifies the crime.

(How Locke was rewritten by scholars to make him into a supporter of colonialism and the dispossession of native peoples is too long a story to go into here. For the moment, it is enough to say that their chief method has been to erase all that he said in defense of the native rights of all peoples.)

Locke went further. He argued that even in a just war, when a nation has all the justice on its side you can imagine, such justice does not give the conqueror the right to take away all the land from the conquered nation. The vanquished, especially the women and children, have a right to live and a right to inherit their fathers’ possessions. “But the Conquered, or their Children, have no Court, no Arbitrator on Earth to appeal to. Then they may appeal [to heaven] … and repeat their Appeal, till they recovered the native Right of their Ancestors … If it be objected, this would cause endless trouble; I answer, No more than Justice does, where she lies open to all that appeal to her.” For Locke, this is absolutely true in an unjust war, but even just wars cannot undo the right to inherit and have enough land for survival.

Saxe Bannister, Attorney General in New South Wales in the mid-1820s and later active in the Aborigines’ Protection Society, put it most succinctly: “rights are never forgotten.” There is the right to reparations in a nutshell. It is as beautiful a humanitarian insight as the idea that an attack on humanity anywhere is an attack on humanity everywhere.

Granville Sharp was one of the earliest British abolitionists. He defended many a slave in England in the late 18th century and was finally successful in getting a judge to decide that slavery in England was illegal (the exact interpretation of the judge’s decision was in dispute, but he was popularly understood to have banned slavery on English home soil). Sharp was deeply aware that the rights of Englishmen were entwined with rights for all humans: “the spirit and equity,” for example, of trial by jury (denied to slaves) would be “entirely lost, if we partially confine that justice to ourselves alone, when we have it in our power to extend it to others” (this point was framed in a rhetorical question). “The natural right of all mankind must principally justify our insisting upon this necessary privilege in favour of ourselves in particular … we certainly undermine the equitable force and reason of those laws, by which we ourselves are protected …” if we do not extend them to all men.

It was this concern for human rights that carried over to the movement to help Aborigines who were losing their land without compensation. Saxe Bannister pointed out that the Parliamentary leaders pushing for the emancipation of slaves had always had colonial Aborigines, or free coloreds, in their minds as well. Sharp himself had made a connection between the causes of slaves and Aborigines. To make Aborigines out to be savages was, like enslavement, to divest them of their humanity, an expression used by Sharp. Sharp had argued that slavery turned human beings into property and that this was a divestment of their humanity. He insisted that no human being can ever be divested of his fundamental human nature and the rights that go with it.

The most important thing to remember about Sharp’s brand of humanitarianism is that he did not just want to free the slaves—he wanted to free them for the right reasons and that included the idea of universal human rights. His ideas, like those of Bannister and Locke, were as beautiful as anything in physics and mathematics.

Twice Sharp tells us that slavery is “destructive of the human species.” (Darwin would say almost the exact opposite when it came to exterminating Aborigines; he believed their disappearance would improve the human race; see below.) Sharp’s statement seems to be based on his belief that the oppression of one part of society, if unchecked, will spread to other parts, particularly to the common people. He notes that the free Negroes, Mulattoes, and Indians in the colonies suffer oppressive measures as a result of the way slaves are treated. There is implied in this a holistic view of human society. The whole binds all the parts together so that injustice cannot be confined to one part; whatever wrongs are done to one will spread to other parts of the whole. Sharp saw connections where racists and slaveholders saw disconnections.

Darwin was more apt to see disconnections. He affirmed connections between humans in the ancient past, but he also believed evolution had created such diversity of character that the end result in our time was that the human races were markedly different in moral and intellectual nature. To one correspondent, Darwin wrote, “It is very true what you say about the higher races of men, when high enough, replacing & clearing off the lower races. In 500 years how the Anglo-saxon race will have spread & exterminated whole nations; & in consequence how much the Human race, viewed as a unit, will have risen in rank.” Rank was what counted for Darwin, which is why he depicted lower races as pulling down the human race as a whole. Getting rid of certain human races, not reparations, was what Darwin envisioned for the future.

Sharp saw it differently. Injustice is what pulled humanity down and giving justice to a despised group could only pull humanity up. As Locke had said, there is no time limit on calling for injustice to be rectified. All human beings are entitled to rights (which never go away, as Bannister had emphasized), so much so that, in Sharp’s view, the denial of rights to any one group would have devastating consequences on all other human beings. He was a holistic thinker. Would he have approved of reparations? I think so. He would have understood that lifting up a people as a counter-measure to the injustices they had suffered would have beneficial results for everyone else. Reparations fit his general way of thinking.

There is a beauty in all this that we would do well to remember. Rights are never forgotten and can never be abandoned. As long as there are descendants to remember these things. That is as beautiful as a gravitational wave, isn’t it? To the ones I have mentioned here, many other forgotten names could be added, like Charles Napier, J. Langfield Ward, and Georg Gerland. Napier had argued how destructive an obsession with national wealth is and Gerland asked us to remember that indigenous people had not rejected civilization, rather civilization had rejected the indigenous.

They all asked us to remember that the line between civilized and savage runs through every human society, and should never be used as a marker to distinguish between cultures. Every society has the capacity to sink back into savagery, as Gerland said, and the so-called savage cultures give us high examples of humanity.

Unfortunately, we have chosen not to remember the humanitarians who taught us these lessons. We do not honor their names the way we honor the names of scientists who enhanced the power of western civilization. We’ve brushed them aside. We’ve dis-remembered them. We don’t value what they stood for. Reparations here would mean remembering what they thought was important and remembering that we have rejected their offerings. It’s that double memory that twists us up inside. We don’t know how to face what our neglect has done to them.

Whatever the merit and benefits of financial reparations, the ultimate reparations are memories. The reparations of remembering history accurately is what we need more than anything else. Whether the future holds promise or gives us an abyss depends on how we remember the past. It is the most dangerous kind of reparation because part of this is remembering how bad we have been at the task of memorializing humanitarians who tried so hard to give us something better. We have erased them from history. If we have any heart at all, we should do our utmost to reverse that.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer