Tuesday, December 31, 2013


In previous posts, I have explained why Darwin’s racism cannot be defended on the grounds that everyone was racist in his time (as Stephen Gould once claimed) or that our standards of racism cannot be projected back into Darwin’s time (as Gould and Adam Gopnik have argued). Not everyone was a racist back then. Racism was a recognized phenomenon in the 19th century and a sizable minority was opposed to it. I have presented some of this evidence before and won’t go over it again. Darwin did not even remain true to some of his own standards. He accused his friend Lyell of being indifferent  about the break-up of slave families, but he himself was equally indifferent to what happened to Aborigine families.
When it comes to the larger question of humanitarianism, then relative standards do come into play. On our current standards, we consider it inhumane to trivialize or denigrate other cultures. They did not feel that way in the 19th century. Almost everyone believed that western civilization was superior. So-called savage cultures were detested by almost everyone, Darwin included. They assumed western civilization would bring benefits to everyone and any rational person should welcome this.

The best humanitarians of the time did not oppose colonialism itself, only the way it was being carried out. They assumed that western civilization was a good thing. They had no illusions that savage cultures would have to disappear, but not through murder, torture, heart-rending destruction of families. One humanitarian in 1841use the expression “the … Euthanasia of savage communities.” He considered this inevitable, as did Darwin. Nineteenth century humanitarians wanted to save lives, not cultures. They wanted to give the natives the best Europe had to offer and save them from the worst.
They assumed that “the encroaching tide of European population” was irresistible. Native cultures would have to give way. It was individuals devoid of any connection to their culture who might be saved. It was an idealized conception of individuals who would hopefully be enticed by an idealized conception of Europe. It was a kind of utopian dream. Many humanitarians dreamed of an amalgamation of races within European civilization. Culturally, it was assumed there could only be one race.
Darwin was in line with the idea that European culture was superior and would remain dominant. He remained committed to the colonial enterprise, but whereas others denounced the way colonialism was being carried out, he would not. In the end, it was all fine with him. One Australian newspaper produced a series of editorials called “The Way We Civilize” and detailed some of the atrocities. Darwin never joined in on this effort to denounce and reform the extreme violence which colonists perpetrated on indigenous peoples. This is not judging him by a later standard. There were more than enough humanitarians who did stand up for the rights of native people to make this a plausible standard for that time period.
Of course, it is also true that even this limited humanitarianism did not build into a popular movement in the same way that the anti-slavery cause became a popular issue. Darwin was very much in conformity with the majority which turned its back on the injustices committed against Aborigines. But opposing the worst that colonialism had to offer was not something that had to wait for later generations. It was very much in evidence among Darwin’s contemporaries.
Darwin preferred not to look too closely at what was happening in the colonial empire. We know he read books that reported some of the same cruelties that had been committed against slaves. In fact, some people argued that dispossessing native peoples turned them into de facto slaves, but Darwin paid no attention to this. If anything, he used his science to buttress colonialism, not criticize it. And that is a shame.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer

Friday, November 29, 2013


One of the remarkable things about 19th century British colonialism is how many officials forcefully stated their opposition to human rights abuses and made it the official position of the British government to promote humanitarianism. This ranged from officials in the Colonial office, like Lord Glenelg and James Stephen, to governors in colonies like New Zealand and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). They were very sensitive to criticisms made by active humanitarians, especially after the formation of the Aborigines Protection Society in 1836 but even before that. Some Christian missionaries made it their business to inform the government of what was going on and demand reform.
Less remarkable is that much of the government’s efforts were fruitless. They accomplished very little. The pressure from settlers to keep up the pace of colonialism and to protect them at all costs, even to the detriment of the natives, was relentless. It was ultimately the white people that the British government cared most about. And very few white people supported the noble intentions of government policies. In his 1852 history of Tasmania, John West wrote, “… the success of humane suggestions depended on the doubtful concurrence of ignorant cotters and wandering shepherds.” There was precious little success in bringing over the average white settler to respect the rights of aborigines.
But some of the failure was due to a failure of nerve on the part of officials and even some duplicity. A lot of lip service was given to the principle that whites and blacks would be punished equally when injustices were committed, but it was on the dark-skinned natives that the brunt of punishment fell. The government had a habit of winning over natives by telling them what they wanted to hear, with no real intention, it seems, to carry it out.
In the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi with the Maori in New Zealand, in the first Article, the chiefs ceded to the Queen of England absolute sovereignty. To the Maori, it was explained that this meant there would be one law, one justice for all, so that both natives and settlers would be living under one consistent system of law, but they would maintain possession of their own lands (which was stated in Article Two) and in Article Three, the Maori were even guaranteed the rights of British subjects. It turned out that the British government had something else in mind. Sovereignty to the British meant that the Queen would control all the land.
And when push came to shove, the Maori did not have all the rights they thought they had; they especially had an idea that their chiefs were somehow equal to the Queen in governance, but that wasn’t so. The goal for the British was to get all the land or as much of it as possible, and that is more or less what happened.

In Van Diemen’s Land, a board with four painted panels was authorized by Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur to be shown to the Tasmanian Aborigines. The first two panels depicted racial harmony and conciliation between the natives and the British military. The last two showed a black man killing a white man and being hung by the authorities, and a white man killing a black man and getting the same punishment.
One could see that it was just the thing that black natives would have liked to hear and that might help to convince them to peacefully surrender and accept European civilization. It did not work out that way. Some blacks were executed for murder, but no white man was ever executed or even put on trial for all the murders and massacres that occurred over the years. Even at the time, it was obvious that this is the way things were working out, as one colonial newspaper noted in 1836 that “the Government, to its shame be it recorded, in no one instance, on no single occasion, ever punished, or threatened to punish, the acknowledged murderers of the aboriginal inhabitants.”
Yes, there were good intentions galore and lots of correctly stated principles of justice to be observed. Somehow, it never got done. Maybe this was in part due to insincerity to begin with and maybe in part to pressure from the majority who wanted to take everything from natives and give nothing in return. The point is that there were never enough voices demanding that things be done differently. Voices were lacking. In the case of slavery, a popular movement built up. In 1788, there were 103 petitions with thousands of signatures demanding the end of the slave trade. By 1833, there were 5,000 petitions with 1.5 million signatures demanding the abolition of slavery.
Demands for the rights of aborigines never reached that level or anything like it. Notably lacking were also the voices of prominent people. The anti-slavery campaign was joined by so many celebrities of the time. It was a cause that everyone wanted to be associated with. Practically Charles Darwin’s whole family was anti-slavery. But his voice as well as that of many other scientists and literary figures were absent from the aborigines protection campaign. Their absence gave greater encouragement to the plenitude of voices that said Europeans had the right to dispossess natives because Europeans were more productive.

In his Beagle Diary, Darwin wrote, “It is impossible for an Englishman to behold these distant colonies, without a high pride and satisfaction. To hoist the British flag seems to draw as a certain consequence wealth, prosperity and civilization.” These words remained about the same in all published versions of the Diary. So many prominent figures would have agreed. Their lack of support for aborigines’ rights and their withdrawal from any consideration of justice for the natives is an important reason why injustice and a drifting towards genocide became the future legacy of Europe.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer

Monday, October 28, 2013


Here is a list of names which might contain one or two you have heard of but most will be unfamiliar to everyone, as they once were to me.  They were all active in the 19th century: Thomas Fowell Buxton, James Bonwick, Alfred Rusel Wallace, Lawrence Threlkeld, Thomas Hodgkin, Robert Menli Lyon, John Savage, Alexander von Humboldt, Montagu Hawtrey, and George Augustus Robinson. I tried to keep it short. Many more could be added, including those who were active anonymously.
Many of them were Christian missionaries. What they all had in common was a passionate concern to end the injustices committed against native peoples. Some of them were vilified for their efforts. I call them great humanitarians but I mean ‘great’ in a relative sense. None of them were perfect. They were great for their time and place.
The other thing they all had in common was that they accepted colonialism. They believed that Europe had a mission to civilize (and Christianize) the world of savage tribes. This they shared with Charles Darwin. But what distinguishes these people from Darwin is that they were quite incensed at the way it was being done. The inhumanity of Europe’s colonial program as actually carried out was an outrage to them. One newspaper in Australia published a series of editorials in 1880 under the heading The Way We Civilize.
Consider how the Rev. Montagu Hawtrey begins an 1837 essay with this heading for section 1: “It is possible to oppress and destroy under a show of justice.” He goes on to explain, “[W]here one of the parties is immeasurably inferior to the other, the only consequence of establishing the same rights and the same obligations for both will be to destroy the weaker under a show of justice.”
The problem cannot be solved by making sure that everyone is equal in rights. The real problem is that Europeans are competing the natives to death. Britain in particular had become a highly competitive society where “every individual is more or less in a state of competition with every other individual.” When that is carried over to a colony like New Zealand, it will “never cease till it ended in the degradation and destruction of the New Zealanders [i.e., the Maoris].”
Bear in mind that competition, even to the death, is at the heart of Darwin’s system of evolution. Darwin extended that to what civilized Europe was doing in the uncivilized countries of the world. Humanitarians like Hawtrey objected. These humanitarian efforts were a part of Darwin’s context. About thirty years after Hawtrey’s essay, Alfred Wallace made a similar point and suggested that Europeans scale back their competitive drive in the colonies.
As for Darwin’s opinion of the inferiority of savages, I will just offer this from Robert Lyon who settled in Australia in 1829. In 1839, he wrote that those who presented the savages as savage in nature were “entirely ignorant of their manner and disposition.” He earned this opinion by spending a lot of time among aborigines. He recognized that settlers made the savages out to be inferior because they needed “to render them odious to the public at home, by representing them in the worst light.” Many of the others I listed above would have concurred that savages were not nearly as savage as many Europeans made them out to be, but Darwin fell hook, line, and sinker for the negative descriptions of savages, as The Descent of Man abundantly attests.
All this is to say that in Darwin’s time, there were plenty of true humanitarians who saw the injustice of colonial policies and actions. Not everybody was a racist back then. Darwin had a lot of competition for his biased anthropological ideas but they were drowned out by mainstream voices.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer

Sunday, September 15, 2013


The purpose of this two-parter (Part 2 follows immediately below) is to present some accurate information about ancient Jewish culture and array the facts against the misrepresentations we usually get from popular and academic writers. What does this have to do with Charles Darwin (besides the fact that everything is connected)?  All will be revealed.
It’s been bugging me for years. Why do I it? Why am I so obsessed with historical truth, with getting the facts right? It is such an anti-social thing to do. If you are going to be a pure truthseeker, that means uncovering the impurities of history and the people who inhabit it, as well as of those who claim to study it. Life and history are messy. Pure truth means impure revelations. To paraphrase what Degas said about painters, A truthteller delivers the truth with the same feeling as that with which a criminal commits a crime. The proper, social thing to do is what many academics prefer: To promote an ideology which ignores the facts about the origin of ideas, cultures, worldviews; the goal is to seek pure origins by fostering an impure pursuit of truth.
By the search for historical truth, I do not mean finding out the grand conclusions of history. Conclusions (Darwin was a racist, Jesus was a Jew to the max) are fairly uninteresting and uninspiring. It’s the evidence, the details in support of the conclusion that are so incredibly fascinating. I am obsessed with accuracy about the details and investigating the scholarship that insists on getting it wrong.
I could ask: Who is really obsessed here? The truthseeker or the falsifier? But I won’t ask that. Instead, I will just repeat: So why do I do it? Why do I commit myself to an anti-social way of life? Then one morning, as I woke up, it hit me: It’s the Jew in me. This was immediately followed by: It’s also the Socrates in me. (The Greeks and the rabbis are a powerful combination.) And it’s the Shakespeare. And the William Tyndale and Robert Chambers and Alfred Wallace and Muhammad Ali and Frank McCourt. And Bob Dylan who wrote, “Woody Guthrie was my last idol/ he was the last idol/ because he was the first idol/ I’d ever met/ that taught me/ fact t face/ that men are men/ shatterin even himself/ as an idol.”
All these thoughts (except the last one by Dylan, which I added later, but which has long been with me, more than a decade, and only by accident did not flash through my mind that morning) came rushing through my head that day several minutes after I woke up. And the reason why it began with ‘It’s the Jew in me’ is because of what flashed through my mind just before my groggy self decided to fully wake up: Scholars are not telling the truth about ancient Judaism. It’s a goddamned lie! Judaism was not a religion obsessed with purity. (Yes, these are the things my sleepy, waking mind ponders.) It was, even in ancient times, one of the most impure of religions. Utterly devoted to impurity.
Abraham is typically considered the first Jew, the founder of a new religion. Founder he may have been, but a Jew? Not quite, not exactly. He was a pagan, born and raised, and converted himself to Judaism very late in life. That’s the way the story goes and it’s the story, the historical memory, that I am concerned with in this case. Jews did not invent for themselves a pure origin. Philo, an Egyptian Jewish philosopher and contemporary of Jesus, called Abraham the first convert to Judaism and a model for all future converts.
Moses was born an Israelite, but he was raised Egyptian. Being Egyptian is what he knows. He knows nothing of Israelite culture. It is not until he is a young man that he feels the first stirring of a possible return to the Jews, then goes off to live in another land for many years before he makes a full return. Both Abraham and Moses straddle two cultures. They know paganism from the inside because it was their upbringing. They choose to become Jews, it was not handed to them as a family tradition. One pristine world of Judaism was not their lot in life.
Aaron, the brother of Moses, was born and raised completely Jewish. Besides being the founder of the priestly line (and it was on the priests that most of the burden of ideas about ritual purity fell), it so happened that in later Jewish tradition, he acquired the reputation of being a peacemaker. This will become important many centuries later, when a high priest insults two leading Pharisees, Shemaiah and Avtalyon, by addressing them as ‘sons of the Nations [pagans, gentiles]’, thus hinting at their status as descendants from gentile converts. The two Pharisaic teachers respond to this accusation of not being pure Jews by telling him that it is better to do the deeds of Aaron (i.e., deeds of peace) than to be descended from Aaron. The term ‘Pharisees’ (Perushim in Hebrew) is often translated as the separated ones, but Outsiders would probably be better. They directly gave rise to the rabbis who never lose that sense of what it means to be an outsider.
The idea of impurity in Judaism goes well beyond the life and origins of various well-known Jewish figures. It extends to the Torah, the gift of a Constitution from Moses, and to God himself. The Pharisees and rabbis never considered Torah a perfectly finished document. The rabbis give several examples of prophets amending Torah. Torah itself begged to be developed. It was a living Constitution. The rabbis too fiddled with it when they felt it was called for. The Torah was not a collection of laws as so many scholars incorrectly allege. It was a collection of constitutional principles. The whole basis of the Mishnah and all of the oral Torah is that the written Torah needs to be finished.
There is one rabbinic parable comparing Torah to portions of wheat and flax that a king leaves to each of two servants before leaving on a trip. The foolish one keeps his portions as is and gives back them back to the king upon his return exactly as he received them. The clever one makes a tablecloth of the flax and uses the wheat to bake bread, which pleases the king immensely. Mishnah, part of the earliest rabbinic oral tradition, is compared to the tablecloth and bread. (Essentially the same parable is told by Jesus at Matt 25:14-30 and Luke 19:12-27, only he uses a money metaphor, talents, instead of an agricultural metaphor to make the point that the master admires the servants who do something with what he left them and create more than they were given.)
Do something new with what I gave you, says the Jewish God. Faithfulness to the Constitution means to make it grow and adapt. Don’t return it to me exactly as I gave it to you—because, in a very deep sense, it is impure, and if you give it back to me in its impure state, you will be committing a sin. The imperfect Constitution needs completion and you have to complete it through debate. That is the point of both rabbinic parables (Jesus’ being the second one). This impurity is buried so deep in Jewish culture that it comes up everywhere you look.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer


[continued from Part 1 above]
God himself loves to be challenged in Jewish tradition. He is not pure and aloof. Abraham asks him to do justice at Sodom and Gomorrah. Rabbi Nachman said that chutzpah (an Aramaic word) towards heaven can get results and Rabbi Shesheth said it makes you like a king (before God), lacking only the crown to complete the picture. Though chutzpah may have meant what it means today (a certain boldness and impudence), I think it may also have meant disrespect. Whether these rabbis were saying boldness or disrespect is sometimes allowable towards God, the point is that God loves a good fight—over principles and justice. God does not want fawning and subservience. If you are subservient to an impure God, then you become even more impure. The only way to beat impurity is to embrace it and constantly challenge it. God, this impure God, raises his children to think for themselves and not to be overly respectful of authority, not even his own. It would be absurd to worship impurity.
Rabbi Yochanan bar Nappacha once criticized another rabbi for constantly agreeing with him and praised his departed friend and colleague Resh Lakish who was always objecting to his points and forcing him to think more clearly. We understand Torah better when there is dispute. It leads to “a fuller comprehension,” Rabbi Yochanan said. Without Resh Lakish to debate him, he added, it was like trying to applaud with one hand. I think he meant that the way we applaud God is to give him vigorous disagreements which he loves listening to. Uniformity of opinion was never the original rabbinic goal, not for the best of them.
So there is God saying, Challenge me, disrespect me, mix it up with me. And there is Torah saying, Don’t parrot me; change me, if you have to, if justice demands it. Don’t put a false, stifling shroud of holiness over me. And I ask myself: Then why would I treat established academic tradition about Darwin or science or anything else any differently? The rabbis refused to make an idol out of Torah or Jewish culture. If you cannot get up the chutzpah to deal with scholars who idolize Darwin and get things wrong, what are you worth? Hillel was blunt about it: In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man. One might rephrase that in any number of ways, such as: In a place where there are no truthtellers, there be a truthteller. Something tells me I’d be failing Hillel and all of Jewish tradition, if I were any less blunt.
“A peculiarly human advantage is that memory sustained over generations allows us to diverge from the past, not only to mimic it … It may include the trying on, trying out, of materials and methods from other current groups not our own.” That is Gillian Beer from Open Fields. Not to mimic, but to allow divergence. The rabbis, so strongly under the influence of Pharisaic culture, accomplished this in a number of ways. One was their insistence that minority opinions be recorded. They give two reasons for this. One is what we might expect. They did not want someone to falsely claim that what was in fact a minority opinion was the majority position. We want to have a clear historical memory of the facts.
The second reason is unexpected. If we keep a clear memory of the judicial history, the minority opinion might turn out to be useful one day. The rabbis realized that the majority in a future generation might disagree with today’s decision. If so, they will need support and this minority opinion might be just what they need to take the community in a new direction. I think there was also a desire for truthfulness. They wanted people to remember that discord and disagreement was a part of Jewish culture. Nothing must be erased. Outside voices must continue to speak. The Pharisees had lived as outsiders to the establishment for so long, it became a part of their spiritual legacy.
Factual accuracy, or at least trying to maintain such truthfulness, can give us diversity and openness to possibilities—just because history does contain a lot more than we realize. It might even help us achieve justice which is probably more imaginary than real. A myth or an ideology aims at the exact opposite. Its purpose is to fix the past into a lie that can never be challenged and never be changed. The creation of myths about Darwin or any historical figure can only happen because the intellectual community has agreed to be dishonest about the facts. And if we believe it is important to expose myths, then we should keep in mind that it becomes easier to deal with other myths when we see one exposed in operation.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, August 29, 2013


This is a follow-up to the post below. I just want to clarify a few points.
One of the defenses some people make for Darwin when the issue of his racism comes up is that everyone was a racist back then. That is certainly not true. In the 19th century, some writers and/or activists recognized the racism of their time and were decidedly against it.
(Another piece of evidence I won’t go into here is that racism against Jews was also a well-known phenomenon. At first, it was called Jew-hatred and then later it was given the euphemism antisemitism. My favorite 19th century expression for a racist against dark-skinned people was complexional misanthrope. It is as honest a term as Jew-hatred. It does not get much more pointed than that. Both terms demonstrate that people knew exactly what was going on; and where there is such knowledge, you can bet that there were anti-racists who railed against what was happening.)
Two of the anti-racists I mentioned in the post below were Thomas Fowell Buxton and Goldwin Smith. The latter was particularly concerned that freed slaves would not fare well, given all the prejudices they would face. This was at a time when racists were worried that ex-slaves would revert back to savagery. Anthony Trollope (see post below) thought we expected too much from emancipation, while Goldwin Smith was concerned society would not do enough for the slaves. Buxton took the situation facing aborigines around the world as seriously as he did that facing slaves, something Darwin did not do.
Darwin’s context is not that all were racists in his time. It is rather that a good many, probably the majority, were racists, but there was also a staunch minority opposed to them and worried about their influence. When it came to race relations, a few people set the bar very high and many more set it very low. That makes it a very open question where Darwin fit in.
I want to take the opportunity here to mention two officials in the British Colonial Office who were also aware of racism and the danger it posed to emancipation: Lord Glenelg and James Stephen. Both realized that the success of the emancipation of slaves would be undermined if racism were not combated and removed. Glenelg ordered governors and attorneys general in the West Indian colonies to look over their laws and amend any that promoted prejudice and discriminatory treatment of blacks.
The efforts of these officials were largely a failure. The white power structure in the colonies would not allow any interference with the way of life they had established. But Glenelg and Stephen are reminders that not everybody back then was a complexional misanthrope and that complexional distinctions (which we call racism) was a known social factor. The end of legal slavery did not mean the end of legal racism, something these two officials tried to undo.
What does all this have to do with Darwin? I am raising all this for a reason that has more to do with Darwinian scholars and devotees than Darwin himself. Personally, I don’t think it is important whether Darwin was a great humanitarian or not. He is entitled to his own life without anyone dragging him into greatness in which status he will never again be allowed to be a human being. What I find shocking are all the people who make this claim for him with no basis whatsoever and who do not even care to think about the issues involved.
I will conclude by concisely stating some of these issues. They do not apply only to Darwin. These questions have to be asked about any 19th century abolitionist. No one, by the way, would consider Hooker, Huxley, and Trollope (all mentioned in the post below) great humanitarians despite the fact that they all supported emancipation (the quotations offered below make it obvious why they failed to be great). So let us drop the pretentious idea that opposition to legalized slavery constitutes greatness. We know it doesn’t. Here are the questions that have to be considered in addition to someone taking up abolition of slavery as a cause:
1)      What did they think was the ultimate goal of emancipation? Was it supposed to benefit the slaves or the masters? What were they expecting?

2)      Did they consider emancipation a success or failure? Many abolitionists regarded it as a stunning failure because white people did not get richer.
3)      For those who did think it failed, did they blame the ex-slaves for not working hard enough? Many abolitionists did exactly that.
4)      Did they support equal rights for the newest free members of their society?
5)      Were they opposed to illegal, forced labor which continued after the official end of slavery? Not many took this to be a serious problem. The Aborigines’ Protection Society was concerned about illegal slavery, but opposition to this never achieved the mass movement that the abolition of legal slavery did.
6)      Did they see any connections or similarities between colonialism and slavery? For some, the impetus gained from the anti-slavery movement carried over quite naturally to a humanitarian movement for native peoples oppressed by colonialism.
For question #1, I think Darwin considered it a major goal to end the cruel treatment of slaves. But clearing the conscience of white people was probably also a benefit he looked for. There is precious little information on this. That is the problem for questions 2-5. Darwin talks so little about any of these issues in his letters. I imagine that for #4 he may have supported them, but then freed slaves were now poor people and Darwin never demonstrated any great interest in their political situation. Question #6 is the one case where it is clear that Darwin saw no similarity between colonialism and slavery. The dispossession of natives of their land and culture and even their eventual extermination he regarded as natural and inevitable.
It seems to be the case that Darwin limited his moral concerns to ending the legal institution of slavery. There is so little information about how he felt about anything beyond this. If he gave any thought to the other issues surrounding this, he either kept it to himself or it is incredibly hard to find. I would particularly like to know whether he believed emancipation had largely been a failure and whether he blamed the ex-slaves. Without knowing that, it is impossible to say how much of a humanitarian he really was.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer

Monday, July 29, 2013


(My new email:  zitzerleon@gmail.com)
The primary reason most scholars consider Darwin a great humanitarian and a non-racist is that he strongly opposed slavery. They make it seem like a simple issue:  Slavery was an absolute evil and anyone against it was on the side of absolute good. That is a very false summary of the situation. The question really is: What kind of an emancipationist was Darwin? There were a variety of positions that people in his time took. This is about much more than Darwin’s personal views.
First, it was possible to be in favor of emancipation and yet also be a severe racist. This was true of Darwin’s friends, Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker. Anthony Trollope is another example. This was actually quite common, and without specific evidence for Darwin, it makes it difficult to say where he stood.
At the end of the American Civil War, Huxley gave a lecture in which he said that he was glad slavery was finally over (i.e., in the west), its doom being just, but he added there were “good grounds for repudiating half the arguments which have been employed by the winning side.” The main argument he wanted to reject was the argument for equality: “It may be quite true that some negroes are better than some white men; but no rational man, cognisant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man … The highest places in the hierarchy of civilisation will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins, though it is by no means necessary that they should be restricted to the lowest.” It is possible that all that abolition will have accomplished is that “emancipation may convert the slave from a well-fed animal into a pauperised man” but that is because “The doctrine of equal natural rights may be an illogical delusion.”
Huxley was speaking for a lot of abolitionists. Was he also speaking for Darwin? I have not found any evidence one way or the other. But if so many people felt like this, why were they against slavery in the first place? One major reason was that the legal institution of slavery had come to be regarded as some sort of moral stain on the conscience of the west—a “monstrous stain” as Darwin called it in an early letter. Their goal was not the welfare of the slaves and ex-slaves, but simply their own conscience. As Huxley also said in that lecture, “whatever the position of stable equilibrium into which the laws of social gravitation may bring the negro, all responsibility for the result will henceforward lie between nature and him. The white man may wash his hands of it, and the Caucasian conscience be void of reproach for evermore.”
That brings me to my second point: How much concern was there for what the freed slaves would face in society? Very little, it seems. They were on their own now, which is how Huxley and so many others felt about it. Very few gave any thought to the considerable racism they would face.
One of those few was Goldwin Smith, a professor of history at Oxford, who asked, “How can there be real political equality without social fusion, and how can there be social fusion while the difference of colour and the physical antipathy remain?” He posed that question in a letter to an American friend around the same time Huxley gave his lecture. It is not the kind of question you find in Darwin, so it is hard to tell whether he agreed with Smith or Huxley. In general, the civil rights of poor, working class people (which is where freed slaves found themselves) was not on Darwin’s agenda.
Third, despite legal emancipation, illegal slavery, or forced labor, continued in many places. In the United States, it was known as the peonage system; also, there was the practice of renting out black prisoners to businesses, which happened in places like Texas. In the Pacific South Seas, it was called blackbirding. Very few actively opposed the continuation of illegal slavery and I don’t see anything to indicate that Darwin expressed grave concerns about this. Opposing legal slavery was a good but limited position. We really cannot tell how much of a humanitarian Darwin was until we explore all the issues surrounding slavery.
Fourth, with the end of legalized slavery, some abolitionists moved to help aborigines in the British colonies. Darwin did not make that move. Thomas Fowell Buxton was one of the leading advocates for both slaves and aborigines. In testimony to the House of Commons Select Committee on Aborigines (1837), he tried to convince Parliament to take the plight of aborigines as seriously as it had finally taken slavery. After commenting on Britain’s final rejection of the slave trade and slavery itself, he said, “An evil remains very similar in character, and not altogether unfit to be compared with them in the amount of misery it produces. The oppression of the natives of barbarous countries is a practice which pleads no claim to indulgence.” Darwin would never make such a comparison.
Fifth, what was expected of the freed slaves? The main hope in Britain seems to have been that they would join the working class and help the empire’s capitalist economy become more prosperous. That did not happen. In Jamaica, for example, the former slaves did not like working on the sugar plantations. Wages were not good and working conditions were lousy. What they preferred was acquiring and working their own small plots of land, supplementing that with occasional plantation work. The sugar plantation economy basically collapsed—for many reasons (like the effects of free trade) and not just because of the unavailability of workers.
Nevertheless, many abolitionists overlooked the complexity of causes and blamed the ex-slaves for the collapse. Anthony Trollope in particular was incensed that the freed slaves preferred their own small peasant holdings to the big capitalist plantations. Like many others, he saw their refusal to work for rich white people as a sign of inborn laziness. In 1859, he wrote, “The negro’s idea of emancipation was, and is, emancipation not from slavery, but from work.” He continued: “To lie in the sun and eat breadfruit and yams is his idea of being free … Jamaica, as it now exists, is still under a devil’s ordinance.” He concluded among other things that “As far as we at present see, the struggle [to end slavery] has produced idleness and sensuality, rather than prosperity and civilization.” So much for the goodwill of abolitionists.
Did Darwin blame the freed slaves for the perceived failure of emancipation? I have no idea. He says little to nothing about most of these issues. And yet based on an almost total lack of information about these vital matters, scholars willy-nilly declare Darwin a great humanitarian. I am not criticizing Darwin who had no obligation to be great on every level. I am criticizing scholars for making categorical statements without evidence and covering up the real situation.
One concern white abolitionists had was that emancipated slaves, who had at least partly adapted to British culture when they were slaves, would revert back to a state of savagery in their new freedom. Again Trollope: “To recede from civilization and become again savage—as savage as the laws of the community will permit—has been to his [the negro’s] taste. I believe that he would altogether retrograde if left to himself.” He actually reaffirms here that “emancipation was clearly right” but we expected too much from it. Like Huxley, he believed that the main thing was that we white people have cleansed ourselves from the sin of slavery.
Too little information from Darwin is again the problem, but in general, we know that the argument about reverting to a state of savagery is an argument that would have made some sense to him. He would not have readily dismissed it. He had his own concerns about the low morality and civilization of savages (which he harps on in The Descent of Man). He would have been sympathetic to Trollope’s point and listened very carefully. Perhaps he would have said that we should wait and see how this develops.
Darwin was a low level humanitarian for opposing legal slavery, but he does not score high, or even at all, on all the other issues around slavery and emancipation. Most disappointing to me was his failure to see colonialism and slavery as similar evils. But as I said, this goes way beyond Darwin. Western civilization has patted itself on the back just a little too much for this one limited act of setting the slaves free. It actually did precious little to make sure that emancipation would be a full success. Huxley pointed out that emancipation benefitted the master more than the slave. Yup, that’s about the size of this great humanitarian act.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, June 29, 2013


Lately, I've taken to reviewing the occasional book and posting it on Amazon.  They are never full-scale reviews.  I just focus on one particular issue, usually having to do with historical accuracy.  Below are my comments on Monte Reel's Between Man and Beast, which is about the man who brought gorillas to the attention of Victorian England:

If you are looking for a book that deals with one particular issue (gorillas and evolution) that took place in one narrow moment of time, then this book is as good as any. It is melodramatic in places, but that serves the storytelling. It’s a good read, as people say.
I have only one major complaint. This book continues a myth that we have become very fond of:  The discovery of gorillas combined with Darwin’s theory of evolution started a great new debate about the origins of man. Not only did it not start a new debate, I don’t think we can even say it reignited an old one. The “old” debate had never gone away. Before gorillas, it was orangutans and baboons. Europeans had long expressed a fear that we might be descended from apes or monkeys.
When Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) offered his evolutionary speculations in the 1790s, the poet Coleridge accused him of promoting a theology of the orangutan to replace Genesis. Something similar happened to Robert Chambers in the 1840s when scientists attacked him for trying to improve the human race with descent from baboons. Chambers boldly argued (fifteen years before Darwin’s “Origin”) that all human beings sprung from one stock. He stressed that the scientific evidence supported this. Ironically, neither Erasmus Darwin nor Chambers were all that interested in descent from apes. Their big pitch was for development from marine life. “Life has, as it were, crept out of the sea upon the land,” as Chambers wrote. In response to his books, Benjamin Disraeli wrote a very funny satire of the idea of humans coming from fish. It is hilarious, regardless of your beliefs about evolution.
There is a lot more evidence that a heated debate over human ancestry was going on before gorillas and “Origin of Species”. Monte Reel never mentions any of this. Erasmus Darwin does not appear at all and Robert Chambers is mentioned once with an inaccurate summary of his theory. Also not discussed is the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who made a very precise stab in 1809 at how human beings might have evolved from apes (and one that most evolutionists today would find essentially correct). All this was in the wind well before the 1850s.
One other irony:  Darwin did not think that descent from apes was all that interesting or controversial; that is, not in comparison to another problem. His main concern was our close relation to human savages, the “uncivilized”. The hairy monkey ancestor was nothing. At the end of The Descent of Man,  he tells us how horrified he still was that we could be related to savages. It was something he never quite got over. And it has a lot to do with racism.

© 2013 Leon Zitzer

Monday, May 27, 2013


This is a follow-up to the post below. Some people would like to oversimplify the issue of racism in Darwin’s work by putting it into one question: Are you saying that Darwin and other scientists of his time are to blame for the Nazis? I agree that it would be very unfair to make them responsible for that evil. But that is not the end of the story. It is not even a very good question. It is taking advantage of what I said below about the Nazis having ruined the conversation about racism by making themselves appear to be the only kind of racism. Let us agree to absolve Darwin of Nazism and we can all go home. Well, not quite. There is something more to be resolved.
There are much better questions to ask than the absurd question of who is to blame for ultimate evil. Were Darwin and others responsible for something much closer to home, colonialism and its attendant injustices? Why do we have to go to the extreme case to assess responsibility? Isn’t it bad enough that so many 19th century scientists pursued theories that were based on racist assumptions, even given the standards of their time? Racist, unjust, and inaccurate concerning the native peoples they claimed to be studying.
Colonialism would have proceeded apace with or without an underlying scientific ideology. The ideology made it easier, it made the colonizers feel less guilty, and perhaps it added a measure of ruthlessness and callousness, since it gave them the confidence that everything they did was in accord with nature. A racist evolutionary theory did not cause colonialism or Nazism. Has it occurred to anyone that, at least with respect to the colonial venture, maybe it was the other way around? Maybe colonialism caused evolutionary theory. It might have provided the model that Darwin and others were looking for.
But again: Why is absolute causation (in one direction or another) the only answer when trying to judge how pernicious were the consequences of a theory? If a theory was misused in racist ways at its very birth, isn’t that bad in its own right? Why can’t the original event be discussed on its own terms? And as for events that followed, can’t we talk of something being a contributing factor? Does it have to be absolute? Some degree of contribution may be the most appropriate answer.
But there are people who seem obsessed with the idea that if anyone investigates Darwin’s racism, he will be unfairly charged with being the primary cause of Nazism. As I said, I agree that would be unjust. This overlooks that there is another side to this kind of historical untruthfulness. It is also inaccurate to declare that Nazism arose out of nothing, out of spontaneous combustion. In the post below, I pointed out that the Nazis did not do the unthinkable. They were not a bizarre phenomenon that came out of nowhere. Nineteenth century science, which included Darwin, made the later Nazi ideas about inferiority and extermination very thinkable. So, by the way, did religion. Too many Christian writers suggested that exterminating Jews was a possible solution to the European problem with Jews, but one that should be avoided. Still, they said, it was a possibility.
The Nazis are an example of how bad this kind of thinking can get. The scientists of the previous century cannot be blamed for not anticipating this. But their racist interpretation was bad enough all on its own. They are more directly to blame for why humanitarianism could not make stronger inroads into an imperialist culture. The best scientists of the day made racist science and racist colonialism highly respectable. They claimed to represent the best that Progress had to offer.  Humanitarianism was dismissed as an interference with that.
No one thought that Progress would lead to anything like the Nazi program of extermination. But they did conceive that Progress justified the extermination of inferior, savage cultures. The Nazis could and did claim to be inspired by that and by western efforts to herd aborigines onto reservations. How much blame does this put on western civilization? I’m not sure. But the answer is not zero. It is some number above that.

© 2013 L. Zitzer

Monday, April 29, 2013


It has been said before and it cannot be said often enough: The Nazis ruined the conversation about race.  Because they sucked all the evil unto themselves, they erased any other kind. Bring up the problem of racism in any individual or institution and the response you get is, “How dare you! Are you accusing us of being Nazis? That is malicious and unfair. We utterly deny the charge.” But there are other kinds of racism besides the Nazi kind.
It is possible to quietly create a world of putting down any culture that does not celebrate triumphalism. Racism can sneak up on you. It seeps into our way of seeing the world. It feels comfortable, like a second skin. It’s not a virulent hatred and soon it’s normal to think: One culture is superior and all the others are doomed to extinction. Nothing wrong with that, especially if the dominant culture brings so many benefits. At its most successful, even the allegedly inferior cultures come to agree. Resistance is futile. The culture that has been given second-rate status lapses into a coma. And when that happens, the superior people say it was inevitable and it was deserved, otherwise there would have been more resistance.

Quiet racism is mostly unconscious and invisible (or almost so). For these reasons, it is difficult to combat. People are reluctant to acknowledge anything that is not obviously out there and open to view. It is easier to pretend it is not there.
Darwin was not strident about his racism. Not generally. Occasionally he slips up and lets slip a more brutal remark. There is a moment in one letter where he crows that “The more civilized so-called Caucasians have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence,” which is followed by a comment he makes even in The Descent of Man, “Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world.” While it is true that, most of the time, he is low-key and prefers to insidiously promote ideas of inferiority, we should remember that ‘beat’ is a word he loved and used frequently in The Origin of Species — as when he speaks of dominant species beating the less dominant — so that even in his more subdued moments, the quality of his racism does not change.

What Darwin did in his quiet way was to make scientific racism more respectable. He was not the worst racist. He did not invent scientific racism. And whatever he did, he did not do it alone. But because of his status, he helped to advance this way of thinking.

What the cutting edge of evolutionary scientists, like Darwin and Huxley, did was that (and here I am borrowing from another writer) they “picked up the pre-existing prejudices and stereotypical attitudes of European and white colonial societies, repackaged them as scientific theory, and then mirrored them back to a literate public.” That’s the way Neil MacMaster puts it in Racism in Europe, 1870-2000. He does not specifically refer to Darwin and Huxley here. He makes some scattered references to Darwin throughout his book, while preferring to talk more about Social Darwinists, but his comment about repackaging prejudice as scientific theory applies just as well to what Darwin did (I just want to be clear that MacMaster himself did not explicitly refer to Darwin in this remark).
Anthropological racism not only became acceptable, it was considered top-notch science. Again, it’s worth quoting MacMaster:  “What distinguished the late nineteenth century was not so much the elaboration of a new science of race, in spite of all the talk of a Darwinian Revolution, but rather the sheer speed with which a discourse of radical biological difference was diffused within European science and became an almost universally accepted way of thinking about history, contemporary politics and national identity.” One of the items that became so well-accepted was the talk of extermination and extinction of native peoples. It had come to seem natural and obvious, even objective. Europeans were not making this happen. This was nature’s doing. Natural selection, not injustice, gives us extermination.

The top scientists of the day would have been incensed if we accused them of racism (the latter being a word they did not use, but they would have recognized ‘complexional misanthropy’ or antipathy or even simply prejudice). They would have denied any feelings of hatred. But it would have been harder for them to deny fear — their fear that inferior races could have a harmful effect on the superior race. That fear of degeneration was widespread. They just would have claimed it was an objectively valid fear.
This cultural attitude was not limited to science. The Catholic Church did its fair share of talking about extermination. Many Christian writers spoke of exterminating Jews as a possible solution to their Jewish problem, and were usually quick to add that they could not pursue this option because they were Christian after all, but the key point is that they made extermination a thinkable idea. There is no need to accuse any of these nineteenth century thinkers and writers of being Nazis. They weren’t that. But it is equally false to say that the Nazis did the unthinkable. Europe had made the elimination of so-called inferior races a very thinkable idea. And Darwin made a contribution. He helped everyone to think of inferiority and lower races and extermination as normal ideas, and he never qualified any of this as having potentially dangerous consequences, just as the Church did not see the danger in bringing up extermination. 
© 2013 Leon Zitzer


Friday, March 29, 2013


Back in July 2012, I put up a post about some of the false claims the Christian right makes about Darwin. It seems only fair that I give equal time to some of the nonsense coming from atheists.
One of the things I learned from Thomas Holt’s beautifully detailed The Problem of Freedom (on emancipation and its aftermath in Jamaica) is that we have never really left the 19th century. We are still living in that long century, as it has been called. Our obsession with so many ideas about life and ourselves comes from that era: Technology is the key to improving our lives, we are the end product of civilization, continual progress is ours for the asking, our civilization is more humanitarian than any other, the free market will never fail to improve our lives, the desire for luxuries is the engine of progress (this idea is actually older than the 19th century), people can learn to acquire this desire, if they don’t already have it, and more. All were there well over a century ago from our present. We are just living out their dream.
I will go back even further. I don’t think we are all that superior to ancient peoples. We like to think that the ancients were prone to inventing gods and myths, and were far less intelligent than us. We are not really any different. We often hold ideologies to be superior to any intelligent solution of a problem. We love mythmaking and we have no compunctions about playing fast and loose with the evidence to get there. Historical study of Charles Darwin is a case in point.
There of course was a real, historical Darwin, but scholars have manipulated the evidence to create a myth. The Darwin so many people believe in is quite a fiction.
I recently made some comments on an atheist website that Darwinists have deified him. I got a lot of flak for that. My main objection is that one cannot deify a man who was so cavalier about the extermination of native peoples. When I mentioned his racism, they were quick to deny it. When I presented just a little bit of evidence, they said, So what? I later realized that there is a fascinating bit of history that tends to confirm my point about the deification of Charles Darwin (which he would have hated, by the way; I don’t lay his glorification at his feet; this is strictly the fault of later academics).
Before it was known as the theory of evolution, it was known as the theory of development or the development hypothesis. It went by other names too (like the transmutation of species), but development was the most popular. Benjamin Disraeli wrote a hilarious satire of it which served as a scene in his 1847 novel Tancred. The satire was based on the theory as expounded by Robert Chambers, but it also reads like a send-up of Origin of Species a dozen years before it was published. Disraeli may not have been very fair, but it is incredibly funny all the same.
One of the interesting things about this theory in its early days is that atheists and atheist publications did a lot to promote the development hypothesis. No one did as much as Chambers (who was not an atheist), with the publication of Vestiges (1844), but atheists were instrumental in getting everyone used to the idea that species have developed from a common ancestor (or ancestors) and that this was a sensible suggestion.
Emma Martin, an atheist and active feminist, distributed 4,000 copies of her pamphlet First Conversation on the Being of a God just a few months before Chambers’ book appeared. Part of it argued for the development of species. Her friend Henry Hetherington wrote an article a couple of years earlier affirming the validity of the development of species, noting that the only mystery was how it happens. Atheists were interested in the theory because it meant you could explain life on earth without reference to God and, not incidentally, undermine the authority of religious teachers and clerics.
Actually, this was not so much about God as it was about challenging religious authorities’ control of society. It was about breaking free of the prison of theology and the claim of clerics to speak for God. One might say that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Today the prison is academic ideology and it takes just as much effort to challenge it as any old-time theology.
By the time Origin was published in 1859, probably a majority of people (except for the die-hard professional scientists) believed evolution was plausible. Darwin did not start a revolution, he joined one in progress, as I have said a number of times in my work.
Since atheists were instrumental in bringing this about, you would think that atheists today would celebrate this. But as far as I can tell (and I am no expert on atheism), atheists, like many academics, have erased this part of history. Why would they do that? Why would atheists ignore an accomplishment in their own history that they have every right to be proud of? One obvious answer is that they need to glorify Darwin as a unique revolutionary who had no equals—a lone, saintly hero battling reactionary forces. In short, a god. A god cannot have any competition.
This may not be the only reason for the peculiar attitude atheists have towards their own past, but I think it does demonstrate a tendency to glamorize Darwin beyond human dimensions. It is an intriguing irony that atheists would delete some important predecessors for the sake of making one man larger than life. It also illustrates the dangers of modern mythmaking. When the desire to create myths is so strong that it can cause people to alter and suppress parts of their own story, it is a force to be reckoned with. The drive to mythologize is alive and well in the 21st century, even among people who consider themselves perfect rationalists.
There is a lesson in this for all of us: Good science and scholarship require constant vigilance. They are never a fait accompli. Even an atheist can become a reactionary force.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer

Monday, February 25, 2013


I have been belaboring this point for the last few posts:  Racism certainly existed in the 19th century and is not an anachronistic idea to describe some of the conflicts of that time. I think most people know this. I would think it is pretty obvious. The only reason I am going over it again is that some Darwin scholars seemed very concerned to assert anachronism as a defense against this criticism of Darwin. Sometimes it seems like every sane person in the world realizes that racism was a serious problem back then and only Darwin scholars don’t see it.
However, the very denial of the existence of racism forces one to look for specific evidence for it, and while I knew the evidence would be there, I myself am pretty shocked to see just how much evidence there is for this. A good place to look is at the British experience with slavery and its abolition, particularly in the West Indies and especially in Jamaica.

Just as a little background to this:  Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in the colonies in 1833. The latter went into effect in August 1834 which began a period of apprenticeship leading to full emancipation in 1838. But before 1833, you should know that there had long been a number of free coloreds and blacks (they made a lot of color distinctions at that time). The free coloreds were gradually growing in numbers and wealth, and were fighting for equal rights, as well as better conditions for the slaves, before emancipation came along. Out of my rough memory of this, I believe they achieved equal rights around 1830 or 1832. At least in theory they had obtained equality. The first colored members were elected to the Jamaican House of Assembly shortly thereafter, but they would always be a minority, even though the black population outnumbered the white by an enormous amount.
The other major piece of this history to note here is that in 1865 the very frustrated ex-slaves in Jamaica erupted in a riot or insurrection known as the Morant Bay Rebellion. It was brutally suppressed by Governor Edward Eyre who declared martial law for a month. Further controversy ensued when some people tried to have Eyre and a couple of military officers tried for murder. The group seeking this prosecution was the Jamaica Committee, formed around January 1866. Taking the opposite position was the Eyre Defence Committee.
That may be a little more background than necessary, but now to get to the point. In the last post, I mentioned Governor Sligo, governor of Jamaica from 1834 to 1836, who used an expression, ‘complexional distinctions.’ Some officials in the Colonial Office, especially Lord Elgin, were very concerned to remove all such distinctions from the laws of the colonies in the West Indies because they wanted emancipation to succeed. They tried, but the racism of the white planters proved to be too strong.
In 1823, Richard Hill, one of the colored leaders, used this term for what we would call a racist:  ‘complexional misanthrope.’ It shows you how lively language can be and can capture things more truly when you lack official terminology. Godwin Smith, a professor of history at Oxford, and a supporter of the North in the American Civil War, referred to ‘the difference of colour and the physical antipathy’ which would be obstacles to creating social fusion and political equality.
At the end of July 1866, in a Parliamentary debate over the question of censuring Eyre and the officers who had committed atrocities, W.E. Forster, former Under-Secretary for the Colonies, wondered whether this would have happened if the victims had been white (possibly the answer to that would have been yes if the whites in question had been Irish). He spotted the problem as being a feeling of contempt for those regarded as an inferior race. There should be one code of morality for black and white. In 1868, a liberal weekly, the Spectator, reached a similar conclusion when all attempts at prosecuting Eyre and others had failed. It actually said, “The upper and middle class of the English people, especially the latter … are positively enraged at the demand of negroes for equal consideration with Irishmen, Scotchmen, and Englishmen.”
I am only scratching the surface here. With a more assiduous effort, I have no doubt that much more evidence could be compiled. Many people knew racism existed and tried to do something about it. But when the overwhelming majority is dedicated to maintaining a racist system of privileges, it is very difficult to bring about major changes.
It was more than possible, by the way, to be opposed to slavery and yet have racist feelings of superiority. Anthony Trollope was one. I suppose this should be a subject for another post. As for Darwin, he joined the Jamaica Committee, but there is no writing which I am aware of where he explains why. For his friend Thomas Huxley and for many others, the controversy over the Jamaican massacre was about the protection of constitutional liberties. The misuse of martial law was particularly troubling. Huxley did not want what happened in Jamaica to set a precedent. In answer to a direct inquiry, he said he was not moved “by any particular love for, or admiration of the negro.” It was simply a constitutional question.
The evidence I have laid out here was only for the purpose of demonstrating that there existed an awareness of racial prejudice and its consequences. So if Darwin expresses any such prejudices in his writings, that is no anachronism. And in his time, these feelings could easily co-exist with opposition to slavery and a desire for justice when cruel acts were committed. Darwin always hated acts of cruelty, but that is very different from being free of ideas of racial superiority. These ideas in and of themselves were not cruel in his view. It was just nature.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer