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