Wednesday, December 26, 2012


This is a follow-up to the post below. I explained there why Darwin could be considered at best a limited or moderate humanitarian. The evidence for his belief in racial differences which would lead to the inevitable extermination of inferior races is just too strong to put him in any higher category of humane thought. He was opposed to slavery and cruelty to animals, and for that, he should get credit, but he limited his humanitarian positions quite severely.

What continues to shock me is how many writers still misrepresent Darwin by making him out to be much more liberal than he actually was. Russell McGregor in Imagined Destinies, an excellent study of the 19th century commitment to the idea that there were doomed races, calls Darwin a liberal humanitarian. And this from a writer who sees very clearly that Darwin believed in a hierarchy of races and was as susceptible to the fiction of doomed races as anyone else of his time.
Adam Gopnik, in his book on Lincoln and Darwin, places Darwin among “the highest—that is, the kindest and most humane—voices of his time.” As I pointed out in the post below, Darwin could not even be placed among the voices of the Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS) and that society was limited in how much it tried to fully protect the rights of indigenous peoples. There was a lot the APS did not get (like how bad imperialism was for natives and separating children from their parents) and Darwin got even less than they did.
Gopnik mentions the trivial fact that Darwin used the word ‘savage’ and quite rightly excuses that as a sign of the vocabulary of that time. But he never mentions, not even obliquely, that the issue is not Darwin using a certain word, but what he said about them, and that included alleging their mental and moral inferiority. At least Stephen Gould acknowledged that Darwin had severe prejudices.
Gould’s problem in The Mismeasure of Man is that he is willing to call Darwin a paternalist but not a racist. He too has to create a false impression of the evidence to maintain this. He would place Darwin among those from the past whom “we most admire in retrospect [because they] urged a moral principle of equal rights and nonexploitation, whatever the biological status of people.” As far as I know, Darwin never raised his voice in protest over the imperialist exploitation of natives. He seemed to regard it as quite natural no matter how badly it turned out for the indigenes. The most you might get from him is a little melancholy at the prospect that entire peoples would be exterminated. Tough luck, but according to natural selection they had it coming to them.
My aim is not to criticize Darwin or take him down several pegs. I can accept the real, historical Darwin as he was. What bothers me is the incredible liberties with the evidence taken by established writers, academics, and professionals.
Over the last several hundred years, we have become quite good at criticizing religious institutions and their representatives for not living up to the precepts of their religion. It is safe to say that religion no longer has the authority it once had. This is sensible. Religion deserves the criticisms aimed at it. But we give a free pass to scientists and academics. They have inherited the mantle of authority and power from religious officials. We have somehow granted them the weird right to tell the most extraordinary lies about history. We do not hold them to account. We do not ask them to live up to the precepts of science and its main duty of honoring the evidence. Whatever they say goes even if it is in defiance of all the known evidence.
There is something else. Our culture considers itself quite liberal, sophisticated, and advanced compared to ancient peoples. We mock their embrace of gods and ridicule their creation of gods and myths. We simply never spot the log in the eye of our own culture. We love to create gods just as much as the ancients did. Charles Darwin is a case in point. We have made him stand for everything holy and good and liberal, as Gopnik and Gould have. The real Darwin was very limited and modest in his humanitarian aims. That historical reality should be enough for us.
But too many have said it is not, he must be so much more, he must function for us as the gods of old did. Darwin would have called it a monstrous exaggeration, as he did when one writer said his theory explains the whole universe. He would have shuddered at the idea of his being made into an idol. Who gave academics the right to create new gods? Who gave them the right to lie about the evidence? And why is there so little challenge to this?
© 2012 Leon Zitzer

Friday, November 30, 2012


One of the defenses made on Darwin’s behalf is that to accuse him of any racism is an anachronism. It is claimed that just about everybody in Europe at that time had prejudices against the darker races (as they were sometimes referred to). Darwin was no different. To judge him severely for this is to use a standard from a later time. Stephen Gould defended him in this manner.
This defense does not hold up. It is not quite true that everyone was a racist back then. There were anti-racists. What is an anachronism is the term ‘racist’. That was not in use. That does not mean that the attitudes which we designate as racist and anti-racist did not exist in the 19th century.
I think we can take racism, in any day and age, to mean a combination of denial of political, voting, and civil rights, and allegations of intellectual, moral, and cultural inferiority. Certainly these things went on in the 19th century. Imperialism was more than just invading other countries and stealing land, resources, and labor. It was a whole system of thought in which legal and scientific fictions were invented to make the subjugation of natives seem moral and natural.
For my purposes here, there are two important things to note:  1) there were some Europeans, not many, who vigorously opposed this racism towards native peoples, and 2) Darwin was not one of them. Oh, let’s add a third:  Mainstream science, of which Darwin was a representative, was mostly on the wrong side. And a fourth:  The historical study of science, with a few exceptions, has generally covered this up.
There were some who were in an in-between position. They were opposed to the more inhumane aspects of imperialism, but not opposed to imperialism per se or the notion that European civilization was superior. It is not clear if Darwin supported even a limited humanitarianism towards colonized peoples. He certainly did not protest their gradual extermination. That was acceptable to him.
The British Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS), 1836-1909, and most of its supporters and members occupied the intermediate position. They were mainly interested in protecting natives from undue harm and especially from extermination. But they were never big advocates of rights or self-determination. Darwin may have attended one early meeting for the purpose of having input for a questionnaire that would be used to gather information about various tribes before they disappeared from the earth forever. But his interest in the Society did not extend beyond this. I don’t think that Darwin can be counted among even the moderate opponents of racism. Many of the Society’s original members came over from the anti-slavery movement (which had reached one of its major goals of banning slavery in the colonies in 1833). Darwin did not make that move.  
The real test that racism existed in his time and is not an anachronism is that there were staunch anti-racists. The existence of anti-racists would make no sense unless racism had been a reality. The level of anti-racism varied quite a bit, but among the strongest I would count Alfred Wallace and Harriette Colenso who was active in South Africa. I don’t want to say too much at this point because I’m still doing research. There were probably others like Wallace and Colenso whom I have yet to discover.
As for these two, I am pretty sure this much can be said:  Wallace had a much higher opinion of native cultures than Darwin did and was deeply concerned that western colonialism and competition would lead to their extinction unless steps were taken to prevent it. Harriette Colenso went beyond the idea of protection embraced by the APS and fought for the rights of Zulus to maintain their culture and land. I hope I’ve got that right, as I know the least about her life and career, but I hope to change that very soon.
The point is that some people in Darwin’s time were very concerned about the sheer brutality and savagery of the British empire and the arrogant assumptions made about natives. Interestingly, Darwin once wrote to Charles Lyell that he did not care whether present-day man (i.e., European man) will one day be regarded as a savage. That says it all. And he didn’t even have to wait for a remote future, as he put it, to hear this charge. It was being made in his very own time.
© 2012 Leon Zitzer

Sunday, October 28, 2012


Throughout the 19th century, European scientists were obsessed with the impending extermination of native peoples around the world. It is startling how scientists were so eager to proclaim the extinction of the Tasmanians, and then “grieved” over the death of Trugannini, the so-called last Tasmanian, in 1876. It is all the more startling considering that it never happened. The myth of the total elimination of Tasmanians (which I was taken in by for a long time) is one that scientists helped to create. There are presently about one thousand descendants of the Tasmanian aborigines. I don’t know if any of them are “pure”. They may be mixed with Europeans and other Australian aborigines, but Tasmanians have survived and inhabited the land in one way or another.

Extinction was something European scientists believed in, hoped for, relished, and lamented. There was more wish fulfillment in it than objective analysis. Patrick Brantlinger mentions a number of reasons why the myth became prevalent, including pessimism over the idea that aborigines could be improved and the usefulness of the myth in reinforcing the belief that scientists were right about aborigine inferiority and about other peoples soon becoming extinct. One case of extinction meant more were coming. The myth would be particularly useful a century later when the (white) Tasmanian government denied special rights to Tasmanians because they don’t exist.

As for that pessimism, Darwin reflected it as well as some impatience, when he wrote in his Notebook D 111, around September 1838, “How long will the wretched inhabitants of NW. Australia, go on blinking their eyes. without extermination, & change of structure.” I believe that last conjunction should be ‘or’. Darwin was saying that it is not natural for any species or race to live long in misery, so that it either will improve in structure or go extinct. As he says earlier in the same Notebook at 49, on August 27, “animals must tend to improve;” yet fish, he says, are same or lower, and so he adds “for a very old variety will be harder to vary, & therefore more apt to be extinguished.—???”)

Darwin once pointed out that there was a high proportion of speculation to facts in his grandfather’s work. He never noticed, however, that he himself was doing the same thing with the extinction of human beings. That betokens an effort to make it true rather than an objective fact that was discovered and believed. Nor was Darwin interested in the myriad ways a people employ to survive. I once heard Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer say in a lecture that, for the Jewish people, it is a long way from being sick to dying. For 19th century scientists, there was no distinction. They fantasized their way from one to the other.                    

© 2012 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, September 29, 2012


The key word above is some. If I attempted to discuss all historical injustices, or only a majority of them, this post would take up the whole Internet and beyond. So I am just going to stick to a couple of what might be called personal injustices which could easily be rectified but have never been and probably never will be.

William Tyndale. Undeniably a linguistic genius. He translated all of the New Testament and a good part of the Hebrew scriptures from their original languages (instead of the Latin version) into English. The King James NT is mostly a takeover of his work. Estimates of 83% to 90% have been given for how much of the King James is Tyndale. Yet he has never acquired the credit he is due, though from time to time you might come across a scholar who acknowledges his accomplishment. The majority of scholars, while giving lip service to his achievement, spend more time praising the King James. Oddly, when they quote verses of the King James they are fond of, it is usually pure Tyndale, a fact they conveniently omit.
Think what that is like. Imagine if someone, say, named Johnson, took Shakespeare’s plays, made changes to about 10% of the dialogue, put his own name on it, and ever after, when people quote from these plays, they cite Johnson as the source. It would be an outrage. In fact, it would be so outrageous, it would never happen. But this is exactly what has happened to Tyndale. For 400 years and it shows no signs of ending. Why?
Or consider Robert Chambers, author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). Fifteen years before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Chambers proved a theory of evolution, as it is called now, but known as development in his time, of species descending from previous species. He proved it is more probable than the theory of independent or special creation (each species being created separately and apart from each other). He too never gets credit. Why is it that when Darwin assembles evidence A, B, C, D, E, it counts as proof, but when Chambers offered the same evidence to prove the greater probability of common descent, it gets ignored?
Scholars will argue that Chambers was not the diligent, thorough scientist that Darwin was. There is a little bit of truth to that, but only a little. Chambers is too often unfairly dismissed as an amateur. The greater truth is that Chambers saw what all the other professional scientists of the time failed to see: That facts like the fossil record, commonality of structures (like the resemblance between bones in the wing of a bat and the bones in a human hand), similarities in embryos of very different adult animals, immense time making slow, gradual changes a possibility, and more, all pointed to the development and transmutation of species from common ancestors. So who was the real amateur? Along the way, Chambers made some silly mistakes, but so did Darwin. One is forgiven, the other not. Why?
I am not claiming that Chambers’ priority means he influenced Darwin. Darwin made his essential case in two early essays (1842 and 1844) that were never published in his lifetime and were completed before Vestiges appeared. This was a case of two great minds thinking alike. Yet one has been virtually erased from history. Why?
My third case is probably the most severe travesty—a good man being labeled evil. The Reverend John Philip was a Christian missionary in South Africa in the early 19th century. He made it his business to expose the oppression of colonialism and the attempted extermination of natives. I learned about him from Patrick Brantlinger’s Dark Vanishings: Discourse on the Extinction of Primitive Races, 1800-1930 (2003; see 77-80). Philip was accused of lying, fanaticism, and holding back the progress of prosperity and civilization. The startling thing is not just that British and Boer settlers hated him, but that his reputation was so blackened that it lasted at least to the 1960s. Very much as was done to Judas, John Philip’s name became a synonym for wickedness, and also as in the case of Judas, it was entirely undeserved. South African schoolchildren were indoctrinated into this false legend (see Brantlinger, 209 n.13). Hopefully, it has changed by now, but the long-lasting vicious reaction to him was a shock to read about. Why did it happen?
I am sure that in all three cases, there are specific reasons for the ongoing injustice unique to that case. It would be interesting to analyze them all. For example, in the case of Chambers, his approach to evolution was more holistic, as it might be called today. He did not wed evolution to capitalism and imperialism as Darwin did. You could say Chambers was out of touch with the zeitgeist of his day. Chambers believed very much in the interconnectedness of all things, so that any injustice committed by one part would come back to bite that part in the ass. That is not what the authorities wanted to hear.
If I had to pick one reason that might be common to all three, I would say that all of them were perceived to be a threat to the powers that be. Perhaps not so ironically, it was Tyndale who coined the expression ‘the powers that be’ in his translation of Romans 13:1. It has since been dropped in more recent translations like the RSV and NRSV. (The King James followed Tyndale to a T, as it usually did; it was from the King James that Tyndale’s language made it into the common parlance.) More ironic is that Paul was speaking of giving respect to these powers because they were appointed by God, yet the term came to connote something evil and devious.
But it was not only the powers of their time that deemed these people should be stricken from the record. The succeeding powers did not let up. There is this commitment to making sure that the injustices should be continued. That is what is so hard to take. They cannot be corrected because to do so would be to admit that a conspiracy of power takes place over time. We cannot admit that we have ever made a mistake, not a serious one. If we ever admit one profound error, our whole system would fall apart. We have to protect future authorities. We owe them a continuation of power more than we owe Tyndale or Chambers or Philip justice. Authorities stand packed together and that line must be protected rather than achieving justice. This may not be the profoundest conclusion one can get out of this. This is just my first crack at it. I consider this a draft for further reflections.
© Leon Zitzer 2012

Thursday, August 30, 2012


Ah, the west. What can be said about western civilization that hasn’t been said already? It’s not that I aim to be critical. I just want to understand. It’s like Pascal said about man and the universe. The universe may crush man, but the universe doesn’t really know what it is doing, while man at least understands what is happening and in that one small way vaults himself above the universe (which may or may not have been Pascal’s final point). I just want to be clear before I’m crushed.

The difference in this case is that western civilization is not the universe. It’s run by men and women, mostly men. It often would like to claim that it is unconscious of what it is doing and not really intending certain consequences, but who are they kidding? Themselves, for the most part. The leaders of a culture are more conscious of what they are doing than they are willing to admit. If any of us get crushed, it won’t be by an unknowing civilization.
It might seem odd, but we do not have the same Pascal advantage over a culture that we have over the immense universe. I want to understand western civilization, but it already understands better than I what it is doing. The only thing anyone can hope to gain is to be able to say, “I know, finally I know, and you the culture know what I know, and now I get to fully realize what you tried to keep me ignorant of.” Combating ignorance is the only tiny victory you can gain in a world of superior forces. It’s not much at all, but maybe God hears.
I am not going to reduce western civilization to one thing. I don’t believe any culture has a single essence or one overall quality that captures it perfectly and completely. All cultures have multiple threads running through it. The Bible, for example, has not an essence. It has many themes. Western civilization is no different.
One thing about western civilization I never noticed until very recently. It almost seems as if the goal of our culture has been to learn to be more and more effectively violent but without the use of guns or other weapons. By ‘violence’, I mean the exertion of overwhelming force which we in the west have learned can be done without resorting to bloodshed. We get what we want — utter domination — and keep our hands clean.
Suppose a government or a political party does not want certain kinds of people to vote. They could send men with rifles to the polling places and these men will turn away the unwanted voters. A step down from that would be to send the same men in the middle of the night to ride through the targeted neighborhoods, warning people not to go to the polls if they know what’s good for them. But why do any of this if you can get the same result without the ugly business of threatening death and destruction?
Just a short while back, in Pennsylvania, they passed a law requiring voters to have ID with them when they come to cast their ballot. I don’t know all the details (like whether the ID will have to have a photo and address). (In NY, once you are registered, the only verification they use is your signature which should match what they have on record.) Many poor people who get social services of some kind will likely have some type of ID, but I don’t know if that ID will meet the requirements of the PA law. The working poor may have no ID at all as many low-paying jobs provide none. Suffice it to say that this law seems designed to knock out a lot of low income voters. And all without guns.
Many years ago in a county in some state somewhere, another brilliant strategy was used to undo the right to vote. The county councilors (about nine?) were all white. Every year, they divided the county revenues equally among them and each used his portion to improve his neighborhood. The black community never got anything. After the civil rights laws were passed, one black man was finally voted onto the council. So now the black neighborhood would finally get something, right? Wrong! They changed the rules of the game. Instead of each councilor getting a share of the pot, they kept all the funds in one huge pot, and the council voted on how to distribute it. Since it was eight to one, the black community once again got nothing.
The case was litigated as a violation of the voting rights act on the premise that when you vote, you are voting for two things: 1) a certain individual, and 2) to put that person into an office with specific powers. Since the powers of the office were changed in this case, the right to vote had been violated. The Supreme Court did not buy that argument and once again a subtle form of violence triumphed. I don’t have updated information on this case or what is happening in PA, but still, these examples serve to illustrate the ways in which domination can be achieved without overt violence. Who said this isn’t a beautiful world?
So many are the ways you can do violence to people. Telling lies about their history is a major one. You might even get them to cooperate in spreading these lies about their own culture. This has been a major technique used against Jews and other minorities. It is my impression that most Jews have a low opinion of ancient Jewish culture (believing it to have been excessively tribal and ritualistic) and even believe that ancient Jewish leaders conspired against Jesus. It forms a dark spot on Jewish self-consciousness. Once a people think badly of themselves due to lies about their culture, you can do almost anything you want to them.
That brings me round to Darwin and the theory of evolution. How so, you ask? Funny you should ask ne that because I was wondering how I’m going to pull this off. Let’s go back to the Bible for a moment. Torah, the Hebrew scriptures. It has many threads, as I said. One is a concern for justice, for the outsider, for the weak, for the unfittest. But that bumps up against a lot of violence. Theologians (who with some exceptions know less about the Bible than any group on earth) are fond of telling us that the God of the Hebrews was a violent deity.
I don’t see it that way. What I see is that violence was a very real part of their world. They did not want to erase it and pretend all was rosy. How to make sense of it, account for it, respond to it, reconcile it or not with their fuller experience of the world and God.
Darwin was faced with a similar problem. There is violence in the world and plenty of it. Does it add up to any kind of sense? Is it just random? Is human violence on the same order as violence in the larger world of nature or does it have its own sources and meaning? Darwin and all evolutionists are no different from the writers of Torah. They are not better, wiser, more sophisticated. They are just human beings like those ancient human beings trying to figure things out. Both are worth listening to. Both have answers worth paying attention to, even if you disagree with their particular answer.
Here’s another biblical thread: These Torah people, they hated power and abuse of power. They hated violence, though they had to stomach it. You shall make no graven image. This is often interpreted as opposition or resistance to idolatry. There’s more to it, I believe. I think they saw images as symbols of power and wanted to undermine, in any way they could, power and the violence that goes along with it. Elsewhere, God says to Moses, No man shall see my face and live (Ex 33:20; I’ve rephrased it just slightly). Even God shall not be a source of power. No one sees him, no one owns him, no one controls him. We shall not be governed by kings, priests, or God, and especially by anyone who claims to have special access to God.
How then shall we live? We shall be governed by a Constitution (the Torah) and rational debate over its meaning. It will be as democratic a process as possible. There will be no hereditary class of interpreters. Merit will determine who joins in on the debate.
The writers of Torah tried to create a society that would be conscious and self-conscious about the problems of power and how it imposes itself. Get a handle on power and the desire for power in yourself, and you can get a handle on violence, both the unsubtle and subtle kind. It is probably impossible to entirely eliminate abuse of power from any society. The antidote to that is to maintain a consciousness of what it means to grab for power. That’s what the authors of Torah tried to do and pass on to their descendants, the Pharisees and rabbis, who picked up on this inheritance pretty well.
And that’s where western science has singularly failed and where it could, if it had a mind to, learn a great lesson. These ancient Jews thought a lot about power and tried to create a system into which they built this concern for what might go wrong. They made questioning power—the power of authorities, including the learned people of society—part of the system. Western civilization has not done the same. We prefer to be unconscious about power and invisible about violence. I say ‘we’, but I’m thinking primarily about scientists who assume they are always objective. They never question whether science too is greedy for power.
We say we want to understand the world, nature, other peoples, but is our presumed knowledge sometimes a way of committing violence? Many native peoples object to anthropology. Why? Because they are against knowledge? No. Because in their experience anthropology is often used to control them and misrepresent their heritage. It is almost impossible for human beings to be objective in the study of other human beings. Darwin is a good example of how easy it is to deceive ourselves about that.
In Origin of Species, Darwin is pretty blunt describing the violence in nature. He does not try to soften it or make it look pretty. He uses some very strong metaphorical language—beat, dominate, battle, and much more. But he resorts to euphemisms in The Descent of Man when he talks about Europeans and savages. I’ll save the details for my book on Darwin. He doesn’t mind telling us that savages make war on other savages, but he has a lot of difficulty saying the same for Europeans and savages.
Rather famously, in fact, he regards the disappearance of natives as something of a mystery. “Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal,” he wrote in his Beagle journal (The Voyage of the Beagle, 375; a few pages into Chapter 19, if you have an edition with different pagination). He believes there is “some more mysterious agency” in addition to some obvious causes of destruction. In a letter to his sister Caroline (May 19-June 16, 1837), he writes, “I am very much inclined to suspect that there is some such mysterious law connected with the destruction of the Aborigines in both Americas.”
This is admittedly early in his career. By the time of Descent, he sees some causes (shrouded in euphemism), but he never emphasizes that there was simply a lot of killing or that dispossessing the natives of their land and culture was an act of silent violence. He does his best to make it invisible. There is an irony here. Darwin is famous for supposedly making man a part of nature. But he is really a part of an older tradition in western culture of setting man apart. He seeks to make violence as visible as possible in the natural world, while making it invisible in civilization. Not that Darwin could, or even desired to, get rid of it altogether. Perhaps I should say he tried to make it less visible. Whereas the writers of Torah sought to make human violence palpable and to find a cure.
Woody Guthrie said it best: Some people will rob you with a gun, some with a fountain pen. Today it would be a computer. They might even back it up with science.
© Leon Zitzer 2012

Thursday, July 26, 2012


I suppose I should spend a few words on the difference between what I am doing and what right-wing Christians are saying about Charles Darwin. I cannot lay claim to any great amount of knowledge of the program of conservative Christians. I’ve looked at one book by one such author on Darwin and if I never read another, it will be too soon for me. The author’s goal is not to accurately understand the racism in Darwin’s work, but to make him look as ugly and as defective as possible—and by the usual foul means, such as quoting out of context, half-quoting, and ignoring significant information.

‘Ugly’ is the key word. The author gives us a distorted Darwin, a fun-house image of him, making him look like a creep. It seems to be part of the conservative agenda to defeat the theory of evolution by discrediting Darwin as a scientist and as a human being. There is a legitimate case to be made to establish Darwin’s racism (which I outlined in my post for May, two posts below this one), but if this book is any indication, conservative Christians are not making it. They are only interested in sullying him.

I just want to go through a few of the things this particular author does. He is Jerry Bergman and his book is The Dark Side of Charles Darwin.

Before he gets to his chapter on racism, Bergman makes various false charges against Darwin: he was a sadist, disloyal to his colleagues, mentally ill, and more. When I say this is an ugly book, I kid you not. I want to focus on the messed up case he presents on racism, but first, I need to say a few things about that sadism charge. He is talking about the pleasure Darwin took in his early years in hunting and killing animals. Darwin was very honest about it in his Autobiography. He gradually gave it up in his early twenties while on the Beagle voyage and replaced it with a love of observation and collecting natural facts.

Bergman acknowledges that Darwin eventually abandoned the killing life, but glosses over it in a few sentences (at the end of Chapter 7). Instead, he relishes every admission Darwin made about his boyhood passion. What Bergman does not discuss is that at the same time that Darwin was indulging his fondness for destroying animals, he was also an orthodox Christian believer. He gradually gave up both his violent tendencies and his religious beliefs. Is that a coincidence? Is there a connection here? For the moment, I would hesitate to make that argument, as it is too speculative. But I could see someone arguing that the arrogance of religious people and the arrogance of violence go together. It was not until Darwin became more of a scientist that he lost his killing inclination. And it wasn’t institutional religion that saved him.

A related point:  In 1865, Alfred Wallace published an essay “How to Civilize Savages” (perhaps ironically titled) near the end of which he detailed some of the abuses Europeans were committing against natives. One friar in Brazil told him that he saved the government the expense of a war with the Indians by placing clothing infected with smallpox among the Indians. In the same essay, Wallace was critical of other Christian missionary efforts and advocated the teaching of morality without religious dogma attached to it.

I mention this because the moral failures and harm caused by Christian missionaries had been known for a long time. In fact, about thirty years earlier, Christian missionaries had been severely criticized for being destructive of native cultures, but Darwin leapt to defend them. It was his first public piece of writing, co-authored with Captain Robert FitzRoy of the Beagle, and printed in a South African Christian newspaper. They defended the job missionaries were doing and adopted the usual attitude of the superiority of Christian values to that of savages who were much inferior. One might say that Darwin’s first public expression of racism was of the cultural kind and not biological. Bergman is of course silent about all this.

Now I can get to Bergman’s chapter on racism. In the first three pages, he uses the terms ‘racist’ or ‘racism’ 15 times (including chapter and section headings); 9 times on the first page alone! It is as if he wanted to browbeat the reader with the notion that Darwin was a racist. Constant repetition of a charge does not make it true. If you have the evidence, let that evidence speak for itself. Bergman is not content to do this. He has to bully his readers into believing his charges.

What is the first piece of evidence he presents? It is a letter (Nov. 9, 1836) Darwin wrote to his sister Caroline expressing his concern that their brother, Erasmus, might marry a certain woman who would work him very hard and turn him into her “nigger”. Bergman leaves out a couple of things. Darwin was reporting his brother’s perception of the matter (“He begins to perceive …”) and he introduces that ugly word by saying “(to use his own expression)”, that is, his brother’s expression. It was not the way Darwin would prefer to put it. He is a little bit uncomfortable with the word, maybe not too much, but a little. Bergman hides this from his readers so that they will think this is Darwin’s usual way of speaking.

Bergman wants to arrogate to Christianity the belief that all humans are descended from a common ancestor (on 211 in his book). He later says that “Darwin’s works … supported the polygenist view of human origins …” (225), which was the view that the human races were separate species descended from different sources. That is completely false. One of the points of Darwin’s theory was that all humans have a common ancestor. He was not the first scientist to make this point. Before him, Robert Chambers also argued that all humans are descended from one stock. In The Descent of Man, Darwin expressed the hope that as a result of the theory of evolution, “the dispute between the monogenists and the polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death” (Descent, 210; I am using the Moore and Desmond edition).

Perhaps the worst thing Bergman does is to misrepresent Darwin’s belief about the intelligence of savages (to use the popular terminology of 19th century Europeans) and that of animals. Bergman mangles some quotations to make it appear that Darwin believed savages were only slightly more intelligent than animals. He takes one quote out of context (on 222 in his book) from Descent (86) to hint that for Darwin there is no fundamental difference between savages and higher animals in their mental faculties. Then (on 228 in his book) he openly states Darwin agreed with the conclusion that the brains of savages are only a little above that of many animals. Without going into all the details, what he does is to misquote Alfred Wallace and then misattribute the misquotation to Darwin and make a mess out of what both Wallace and Darwin believed.

Darwin was consistent in stating that the intelligence of the lowest savages was far above that of the highest apes. In fact, if you look on the prior page in Descent (85), Darwin says, “… the difference in this respect [mental power] is enormous, even if we compare the mind of one of the lowest savages … with that of the most highly organised ape.” He also says the same in some of his letters. What is true about Darwin is that he sometimes unattractively compared savages and animals and could make it seem that savages were lower than animals. He was expressing his disgust with what he thought was the culture of natives (often taking his ideas from the reports of others). This was cultural racism, not biological racism, though this too can be found in Darwin’s work. Cultural racism (and all racism, even the biological kind, is essentially cultural) is not something Bergman wants to discuss because it would raise the question of how much Christianity contributed to this.

Bergman does present some authentic evidence for Darwin’s opinions of savages, their inferiority and eventual extermination. But he misses a lot more. Why would he fail to make the best case that could be made? Because the full case would explore Darwin’s cultural and biological racism (if you think one should even make such a distinction) and discuss the relationship between scientific and religious racism. That is not something right-wing Christians want to get into. Understanding racism is not their goal.

Interestingly, Darwinists, in their attempts to make Darwin look better than he was, use some of the same methods Bergman uses—quoting out of context, half-quoting, ignoring some important issues. Conservative Christians and Darwinists well deserve each other. You won’t get an accurate and fair picture of Darwin from either group.

This post turned out to be longer than I had planned. I think that’s because I do not intend to return to the subject of the unfair tactics of the right-wing again, so I wanted to get it completely off my chest now.

Copyright 2012 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, June 28, 2012


I will be fairly brief in this post. A full explication with all the evidence awaits my book. There are three main objections raised against the possibility that Darwin incorporated a fair amount of prejudice into his science of man: 1) racism is an anachronism for Darwin’s time; 2) Darwin’s theories have nothing to do with races and groups; he was concerned only with individuals; and 3) to the degree that there is any prejudice in Darwin’s work, it smacks of paternalism rather than racism.

There is virtually no evidence to support any of these arguments and there is more than enough evidence to demonstrate the opposite of each of these contentions. Racism is certainly not an anachronism for the 19th century. There some anti-racists in Darwin's time, and if there were anti-racists, there must have been racism. They were not opposed to a chimera. Alfred R. Wallace would be one notable example of an anti-racist.

As for groups, the whole point of Darwin’s theory was to explain how species originated, not individuals. The title of his book tells us it was about The Origin of Species, not the unreality of species. And how do new species come into existence? The rest of the title tells us: By Means of Natural Selection. The sub-title adds that this is also about the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The idea that natural selection was intended to explain only the development of individuals is nonsense. Throughout Origin, Darwin returns again and again to this main theme: Natural selection gives us both the birth and extinction of species. Those species or races that survive are superior.

As for paternalism, this is too weak a characterization of Darwin’s actual opinions. It was mainly Stephen Gould who argued that Darwin was a paternalist, not a racist. In my book, I will rely on Gould’s distinction between racism and paternalism to establish that racism is a more accurate designation for Darwin's views.

All these objections are easily dispatched. There is a fourth objection which is even easier to get rid of. Gould does a good job, so I don’t need to devote much attention to it. Gould writes, “The common (and false) impression of Darwin’s egalitarianism arises largely from selective quotation. Darwin was strongly attracted to certain peoples often despised by Europeans, and some later writers have falsely extrapolated to a presumed general attitude” (The Mismeasure of Man, 417). Gould goes on to quote Darwin’s favorable impressions of African slaves and his low opinion of Fuegians.

Selective quotation is a problem throughout Darwinian scholarship. Gould himself, unfortunately, is not averse to making some evidence about Darwin disappear—for himself and not just for his readers. We get half the picture from so many scholars. The full picture reveals that the above objections turn out to be quite specious.

The real objection to the allegation that there is any racism in Darwin’s work is two-fold: 1) an a priori conviction that Darwin is such a great scientist and a humanitarian representative of the best that materialism or secularism has to offer that it is (a priori) impossible that he was a racist; and 2) we will just erase any evidence to the contrary. It is essentially an emotional argument. The troubling part is that emotions are used to suppress evidence. There is a concomitant implication that mainstream science can commit any errors it wants to and never be called to account because it controls what evidence will be admitted into the discussion. When I speak of erasing evidence, I of course do not mean a literal erasure, but an erasing from our consciousness. It’s there, but no one wants to see it.

Copyright 2012 L. Zitzer

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Darwin's racism is so simple and obvious, it can easily be explained without beating around the bush. Natural selection acts not only on corporeal structures, as Darwin would put it, but on the mental faculties as well. There is a continuum of intelligence from the lowest animals up through man. Darwin was not the first to make this point. Notably, before Darwin, Robert Chambers in 1844 in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation also saw gradations of intelligence from animals to mankind. We are bound up, said Chambers, "by an identity in the character of our mental organization with the lower animals ..." Man is different in degree, not in kind.

Are all human beings on the same level of intelligence and moral or social values? Darwin didn't think so. He believed the savage races were less intelligent and less moral than Europeans, and, as a direct result of this, they would soon become extinct. That's what happens to inferior groups. He used 'extinct' and 'exterminated' interchangeably.

Darwin was not vicious about it. He did not exult in the white man's superiority (actually, there is one slight exception to that in one of his letters). He did not use nasty epithets to describe savages, though he made his revulsion at their way of life quite plain. He simply used, or misused, his science to claim they were inferior in the struggle for survival. Their extermination was inevitable and he expressed no qualms about it. It cannot be stressed enough that Darwin was convinced this extinction was the result of a biological process, namely, natural selection, and not injustice.

Darwin did believe all human beings had a lot in common (like emotions) and he thought many differences were trivial (like skin color and hair texture). But intelligence was not a trivial difference. It had serious consequences.

It also has to be remembered that even though Darwin believed we were all evolved or descended from a common ancestor, this did not confer any kind of equality in his view. Natural selection may proceed from shared origins, but it goes in the direction of incredible diversity. Apes and human beings were related too, but Darwin in no way believed they had the same degree of intelligence (he thought apes would become extinct too).

It's true that Darwin was opposed to slavery—but not because he thought all men were equal. He opposed it because it was cruel and he hated all forms of cruelty. Wasn't colonialism also cruel? Yes, but here he was prepared to look the other way. He seems to have accepted imperialist cruelties the way he accepted the many harsher aspects of nature (like the wasp paralyzing its prey so that it could be used as live food for the wasp larvae).

There are two extremely puzzling things about Darwin: 1) how he could tolerate certain kinds of human cruelty, but not others, and 2) how he could use science to sanction the extermination of entire peoples, savage or not.

There is a lot more than can be said about all these details, but that's the story in a nutshell.

Copyright 2012 L. Zitzer

Sunday, April 22, 2012


In May, I am going to put up a post giving a very brief explanation of Darwin's racism.  I will try to keep my posts fairly short in the future.  (The one below this on survival of the fittest is long, but it's interesting.)

In the meantime, I just want to mention that I discuss Darwin a bit in the current April post on my other blog on the historical, Jewish Jesus:  I give a brief statement on why it is wrong to ascribe chance to Darwin as one of his beliefs.  The comparison to what New Testament scholars do is that in both fields, ideology trumps the actual evidence.  I kind of believe that to rescue the real people who once lived in history from the clutches of academic ideology might qualify as a noble task.  But even if it doesn't, I'm going to do it anyway.

Monday, April 2, 2012


Whatever you make of survival of the fittest and however useful it may be to understand nature in the wild, applying it to human beings is not one of Europe's proudest achievements (or America's, considering that many American intellectuals embraced it too). I say 'Europe' and not Darwin in particular because the idea of a struggle for existence (on which survival of the fittest is based) goes back before Darwin, as he acknowledged. Darwin pointed out to Asa Gray (in the Sept. 1857 letter where he first described the theory of natural selection to him) that "The elder De Candolle, W. Herbert, and [Charles] Lyell, have written strongly on the struggle for life; but even they have not written strongly enough."

Darwin and Alfred Wallace got the idea of how intense the struggle was from Malthus. But there is an important difference in the writing of Malthus. In Chapter XVI of An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus criticizes Adam Smith for missing that you do not measure how well a society is doing by how well off the the wealthy are, but by how well the lower classes are doing, especially the working poor. Darwin's focus on the fittest misses this too. I'll return to Darwin shortly.

I take survival of the fittest personally. I'm not all that fit myself. My own life is an experiment in: How long can a total idiot survive? Longer than you think.

I wake up in the morning and it takes a while for me to get over the nightmares. When I'm fully awake, I realize they've only just begun. Your kind is unwelcome. Your voices unwanted, your existence in doubt. These things happen to people, and if it's never happened to you or your culture, you can kiss your lucky star.

In dreams, I'm under the illusion that I am completely at the mercy of the demons hunting me. In life, I'm under the illusion that I'm the one in charge. I'm not. You can't be in a world that is fond of making sure that some voices are never heard and that some truths get lost forever. The only thing I know for sure: Telling the truth won't bring back the dead. Nevertheless that's the vain job of the historian.

I wonder why historical truth matters (about what Darwin actually said, what ancient Jewish culture was really like, how the historical Jesus/Joshua ended up on a Roman cross, when did slavery in the United States really end, and much more). I ask myself this a hundred times a day -- at least. Doesn't any form of historical search impede progress? How can our culture come out on top, if we entertain doubts about what happened in the past and what we're doing today? And yet, what will happen to us down the long road before us, if we destroy the past and our relationship to it?

Every morning there are scholars who wake up and wonder what fresh lies they can tell today. If you get the facts wrong about history or science, I call that a lie, whether it is done intentionally or unintentionally. Unintentional lies are the worst because it means unconscious forces are at work, and those are the hardest forces to expose. The power to tell a lie and get away with it is exhilirating. Worse yet, a majority of people think this is a really cool thing to do as long as we win something valuable in the end. If our culture wipes out the competition, what can be wrong with that?

Of course, there are no fresh lies. They are all variations on the one: We are better than them and our culture must beat all others. ('Beat' is a word Darwin used a lot -- I mean, really a lot.) The more fit shall live, the less shall fit die -- and hush up. It's a law of life. I just would not be so sure who is more fit and who less. I don't know but that sometimes it is the least fit who conquer. The Tasmanians who entirely perished were perhaps more fit than their British colonizers. The six million Jews who died might have been more fit than their executioners. The Nazis abused every science they could lay their hands on, including the theory of evolution, but I remember as a child hearing so many Americans, who were not Nazis, say that the Jews who died must have been weak or they would have fought back. The notion lingers outside of Nazism that survival always means something good and not surviving is the polar opposite and something shameful.

We are told that in nature, triumph matters and that triumph is proof of fitness. I'm doubtful. Maybe those who are crushed matter the most and are the most fit. Maybe. It's open to question is all I'm saying. Survival of the fittest may or may not be racist, but for human beings it's always a nightmare.

'Survival of the fittest' is as Darwinian a term as you can find, even if Herbert Spencer was the one who came up with it. Darwin fully approved it, incorporated it into the fifth edition of The Origin of Species, and wrote (a couple of paragraphs into Chapter III), "But the expression used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the Survival of the Fittest is more accurate [than Natural Selection], and is sometimes equally convenient." Stephen Jay Gould, who did not relish acknowledging the dark side of Darwin (the competition and death in his work), fully admitted that Darwin approved of survival of the fittest.

This is one point that most scholars get right. I only mention this because occasionally there is a writer who thinks Darwin rejected 'survival of the fittest' because it is too brutal or too political. Adam Gopnik, in his book on Lincoln and Darwin (105), thinks this. He mentions the letter that Alfred Wallace wrote to Darwin to convince him to adopt this term, without telling his readers that Wallace thought the term personified nature too much, and then gives the impression Darwin rejected his suggestion. Gopnik writes, "Darwin calmly explained that the virtue of natural selection was that it was a sister phrase to 'artificial selection' ... whereas 'survival of the fittest' was awkward and might raise political specters." What Darwin actually replied to Wallace was: "I fully agree with all that you say on the advantages of H. Spencer's excellent expression of 'the survival of the fittest' ... I wish I had received your letter two months ago, for I would have worked in 'the survival,' etc., often in the new edition [the fourth] of the 'Origin,' which is now almost printed off ..." As it was, Darwin had to wait until the fifth edition to work it in.

I would not be the first to point out that 'survival of the fittest' is circular reasoning. All it says is that those that survive are the best at surviving. Fitness is measured by the ability to survive. Those that are good at surviving (the fittest) are good at surviving. Brilliant.

It does not tell us a lot about nature (other than the obvious), but it does tell us a lot about those who believe in this criterion and their values. It may be circular, but it is not an empty expression in as much as it tells us so much about the values our society holds dear. That means it is not an objective truth. It is loaded with subjective assumptions. The wonder is that neither Darwin nor Wallace nor anyone else who took it up fully understood its circularity. They all believed in its objective worth, though Wallace would come to have doubts.

If 'survival of the fittest' and 'natural selection' are equivalent terms, as Darwin himself believed (the title of Chapter IV in the fifth edition was changed to read "Natural Selection; or Survival of the Fittest"), does this mean 'natural selection' is circular too? I don't think so. 'Survival of the fittest' is the purest kind of circularity. 'Natural selection' makes a causal statement about the modifications or mutations which are beneficial to survival and get passed down from generation to generation, and then these accumulated variations lead gradually to the creation of new species. Survivability is not just circular, it is the cause of species transmutation. The main cause are the gene mutations, but it is ability to survive that determines which mutations are selected to remain with descendants.

But the two terms are united in making survival absolutely central to a vision of the world. This works fine for explaining the development of flora and fauna in general. But it is questionable whether survival of the fittest should be used for human beings. Darwin continued to apply it to man. He uses it a few times in The Descent of Man. He wanted to apply natural selection to the intellect of man. The smartest, the best, the brightest, reaching the eptiome of the likes of Newton and Shakespeare -- the development of such great intellects is explicable by survival of the fittest, that is, the most intelligent in such cases. He saw gradation of intellect throughout the animal world and he would place man at the high end of that continuum. But is that right? Doesn't survival, intellect, and humanity present a problem? When you link survival to fitness in the human world, you are in dangerous waters.

There is a difference here between Darwin and Wallace. I have not completed my research yet on Wallace, but here is what I'm pretty sure of so far: Wallace began to have doubts about whether western civilization was more fit than so-called primitive cultures (though neither Wallace nor Darwin nor anyone else of that time would have said 'so-called', and they would have preferred to say 'savages' without qualification). He came to believe that we cannot make any determinations about fitness until we achieve a just society. In The Wonderful Century (1898), Wallace identified militarism and greed as the principle evils of Europe. In a letter to the editor of a journal, he wrote, "though I love science much I love justice more."

Wallace made a hugly important point. I realize the irony here. He is generally considered (quite unjustly) the less great scientist, the less fit. His words, his thinking have survived just barely. They did not conquer in the way Darwin's work did. But less fit in this case may be more fit.

I don't think 'survival of the fittest' is inherently racist, but it is worrisome that no one before the 20th century arrived (except perhaps Wallace) sensed its potential danger when applied to humanity. It means making a judgment about which human races or cultures are fitted to survive. Who makes that judgment? Scientists? Politicians? Do we vote on it? Anyone making this decision would be a farce.

For flora and fauna, 'survival' and 'fittest' may be more or less neutral and quantifiable, but for human beings, there are potentially terrible consequences. The very idea of which race is fit to survive is loaded with a preordained, western conclusion. It is always that way when the winners are making the judgment. In a July 3, 1881 letter to W. Graham, Darwin wrote, "The more civilised so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence." (Of course, in The Descent of Man, Darwin would admit that such victories may only be temporary as natural selection always acts tentatively.)

'Survival of the fittest' was bound to cause trouble one day. Can a culture be more fit but less just? Wallace thought so. Applying 'survival of the fittest' to humankind is not Europe's proudest moment.

What bothers me is not the term itself -- it does not have to be used in a racist way -- but the fact that so many European and American intellectuals in the 19th and early 20th centuries could not even conceive how brutally unfair and judgmental it had the potential to be. They could not conceive it because they sensed no immediate threat to themselves. When you're on top of the world, the dangers of survival of the fittest are very far away and beneath you. It's problematic only for those at the bottom -- for the Other, for whom even a dollop of justice could make a big difference.

Would Darwin have been so enthusiastic about the struggle for existence, if he had been writing a few centuries earlier when Europe was threatened by the "Turks"?

Fitness might make some sense in the world of animals. But among humans, survival belongs to those who have seized power and the ones with power are not necessarily the most fit.

I have never been able to get over the fact that one of Shakespeare's stage directions (perhaps his favorite?) was "Enter, fleeing." In a world that contains an idea like survival of the fittest, it is the only way to enter the world.

Copyright Leon Zitzer 2012

Friday, March 2, 2012

A New Blog by Leon Zitzer

This is my first post on a new blog about Charles Darwin and some of the racist views in his work.

I am writing a book on Darwin's racism. Hard to say exactly how far along I am. About half-way, I would think. The point of this blog is to find out what's out there and how much interest there is in this.

This is not an effort to denigrate Darwin or an attack on his reputation. He will do just fine. This isn't really about Darwin. It's more about academia and the way it has elevated Darwin to god-like status, why this happens, how it happens, how it harms the study of science and history when you make anyone into a god, and the problems in learning to see the facts clearly.

The racism in Darwin's anthropology is fairly obvious. It's there in The Descent of Man, and in his letters. It's important to be clear that there are different kinds of racists. Darwin was not the worst sort. He did not go overboard and he certainly was not eager to draw practical or political conclusions from it. He may have wanted to soft peddle it. But there's no doubt he believed some human races were inferior to others and were consequently destined for extinction.

He was a great scientist, but he made some serious mistakes. He was a product of his class and culture. His racism is a lesson in how culture influences science.

On the issue of Darwin's racism, academics fall into several broad groups: Those who are in complete denial about it. Those who acknowledge it, but pass over it quickly and therefore fail to do full justice to the wide range of evidence for his racism. Those who kind of admit it, but try to spin it in a way to make it look less problematic. Those who fully recognize it, but are not interested in a full, honest conversation and prefer not to name it racism. Of course, there are always those who fall between categories.

A broader issue is whether racism still infects evolutionary theory and anthropology. That is extremely important, but I am not sure if I have the capacity to deal with it adequately and fairly.

As I said, I am working on a book. I am putting up this blog because I am curious how much interest or denial there is in this. Does anybody care? Does the issue of Darwin's racism provoke strong emotions? Is it possible to have a calm, rational discussion about this? How much good work has been done on this? Whether I continue this blog or not will depend on whether I get any response at all and the quality of responses. I will be putting up various links on the right over the next few days. In the meantime, here is my name and email: Leon Zitzer,