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