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