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