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