Monday, January 28, 2013


This is another follow-up to what I’ve put up in the last two months. In my post for November 2012, I explained why the allegation that there is racism in Darwin’s scientific work is not an anachronism. Racism certainly existed in Darwin’s time. When people are denied political and civil rights on the basis of a belief that they are intellectually and emotionally inferior, you can call that racism. People in the 19th century knew it existed because some opposed it. The existence of anti-racists means there were racists, no?
The word ‘racism’ was not used but that is immaterial. They had other words to identify the same thing. I recently came across some quotations from Lord Sligo, governor of Jamaica from 1834 to 1836 (the first years of the abolition of slavery and the commencement of the apprenticeship period), who happily (and a bit prematurely) wrote to his superior, Lord Stanley, the colonial secretary, “on the part of the Whites all feelings of complexional distinctions had been done away [with] …” It wasn’t quite true, but the point is that he and others were very aware that racial prejudice existed and that it was holding back the blacks and the browns (in Jamaica in this case, where color distinctions were quite numerous and petty).
In my last post, for December 2012, I briefly discussed a few writers who exaggerate how liberal and humanitarian Darwin was. They simply ignore the evidence for how much Darwin believed most native peoples were doomed to extinction precisely because they were intellectually inferior to Europeans. I noted that Russell McGregor pointed to just a little of this evidence and still called Darwin “a man of liberal humanitarian outlook” (Imagined Destinies, 30).
Now I want to follow up on another comment McGregor makes on the same page. He says Darwin “was dismayed by the racial views of polygenists.” That is technically true in a sense, but it is misleading and partially false. The polygenists believed there were separate, distinct lines of human development, so that the various human races were not related. The monogenists believed all human beings were descended from a common ancestor. Darwin of course was in the latter group. So was Alfred Wallace, Robert Chambers, and many more. So, yes, Darwin disagreed with those who argued there were separate lines of humanity. On that one, very specific point, Darwin objected to the polygenists.
As to other racial views of polygenists concerning the intellectual and moral qualities of various peoples, Darwin did not disagree. Common ancestry did not confer equality or brotherhood. Not in Darwin’s view. Too many scholars constantly forget that evolution for Darwin not only meant development from an ancient source, but also incredible diversity in that subsequent development. Humans and apes also share a common ancestor, but Darwin did not believe they were intellectual equals. In The Descent of Man and in some of his letters, he reiterated that there was a huge gap between the highest apes and the lowest humans.
That gap is a big part of Darwin’s system. And he did believe there were lowest humans. There is another gap between them and the highest humans, not as big as the first one but still it is there. There are many places in Descent where he looks for signs that certain groups of humans are closer to the animal world than white people or Europeans are.
I won’t here go over the evidence in Descent. You don’t have to be a genius to find it. Darwin made no effort to hide his prejudices. What I object to are ambiguous statements by scholars that do not fully and fairly convey what the evidence is. Darwin disagreed with polygenists on one particular point, but otherwise backed their ideas on racial differences that exist now.
In Darwin’s favor, it must also be said that he was not a hard-core racist. He allowed that there was individual variation within a group. If someone demonstrated intelligence as much as the average white man did, then Darwin could accept that and not hold race against that person. A deeper racist would regard any such demonstration as merely the effort of a monkey imitating its master. Darwin was not that bad.
But a little bit of racism does seep into even his more generous position. The measure of intelligence and morality for him was how well a member of another race could adopt and adapt to European standards. He would have called it the ability to improve. Without acculturation to European society, the individual and the race remained inferior. In his comments on women in Descent (in Chapter 19), Darwin sees women’s faculties (such as intuition and rapid perception) as indicative of the lower races and a lower state of civilization. This is much more than paternalism, as Stephen Gould claimed. This was Darwin’s version of biological inferiority.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer