Saturday, December 27, 2014


There are so many ways voices can be suppressed. In the case of Georg Gerland, it’s easy. Just don’t translate him. His book Über das Aussterben der Naturvölker (On the Extinction of Primitive Peoples) was published in 1868. As far as I know, it has never been translated into English. There is a French edition which has helped me, but I’ve consulted the German too. It ought to be considered a classic of humanitarianism. Instead, hardly anyone knows about it.
Gerland was a German professor of geography, anthropology, and more. Darwin mentions his book a bunch of times in The Descent of Man. He read it very carefully in preparation for Descent, making a running translation in the margins as he went along and also keeping a few pages of notes. His interest in it, at least as far as the references in Descent go, was quite limited. He extracted some information about infanticide among savages and notes some points about dwindling numbers of a group leading to extinction, but he never tells his readers how rich Gerland’s book is and how sympathetic he was towards the plight of savages (which is how Darwin translates Naturvölker).
Darwin and Gerland together provide a good example of how two authors might agree on some general points yet interpret those points quite differently. Thus, both find that there are multiple causes threatening the existence of native peoples, but they do not arrange them in the same order of importance. For Darwin, the infertility of the women was a major cause. He also looked at infanticide and the susceptibility of savages to new diseases. He emphasizes what might be called biological causes.
Gerland looked at these causes too, but he also paid considerable attention to the bloodthirstiness and violence of Europeans towards natives. Besides overt violence, he made a big issue of what we would call culture shock. In the best of circumstances, if Europe had approached indigenous peoples in a friendly manner, adapting to another culture would be extremely difficult. It is mentally and spiritually exhausting. And savages never had the advantage of amicable relations with European invaders. Trying to assimilate a conquering culture has depressed the hell out of natives. Gerland was very sensitive to this. He also knew this was aggravated because of the racism of Europeans. Gerland usually refers to racism as arrogance and even racial arrogance. He singles out the English and the Dutch for their arrogance and hatred towards all people of color.
None of this enters into Darwin’s own examination of causes and he never tells the full story of what Gerland really thinks.
Both Darwin and Gerland believed that man was a part of nature, but here again they are so far apart from each other. Gerland looked at things from the point of view of the whole. He did not think that Europe was the center of the universe. Every human race is a part of the whole of nature and each part makes some contribution to the whole. Europeans have no right to decide when some part’s contribution has come to an end. Gerland believed that nature wants each of its components to thrive and progress. Savages must somehow play a role in this too. Europeans should not be cavalier about the extinction of any group and certainly should not be helping any group along to its demise. If Europe does that, it will be sinking back into savagery.
Darwin knew all this about Gerland because he translated many of these points in the margins of his copy of Gerland’s book, but he is silent about it in Descent. Compared to Gerland, Darwin’s approach to the impending extinction of savages is incredibly arrogant. Their extermination for Darwin was inevitable precisely because, in his view, savages are inferior and Europe superior. For Gerland, it is not inevitable unless Europe makes it so and that would be a barbaric thing to do.
As I said, Gerland’s book is a classic, combining science and humanitarianism. It has been suppressed primarily, I think, because it is such a contrast to Darwin’s work. It is yet another 19th century book that identified racism as a major cultural problem for Europe that can be ignored only at its own peril. He was the far more prescient thinker.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Monday, November 24, 2014


Lies generally don’t stand alone. They breed, they multiply. Getting away with it once seems like a piece of cake and that should be the end of it. But every lie needs a cover-up and that means more lies. Ironically, the proliferation ultimately makes it easier to undo the whole mess—that is, assuming anybody cares about what is going on.
If someone told a lie about Charles Darwin and it was just limited to him, I could understand the argument that he should be let off the hook. So what if Darwin was not exactly like the lie would have it? So what if there is some racism in his work and some tolerance for genocide? He was just like everyone else in his time in this respect (there’s another lie right there). He also did a lot of good work and we should let that erase the bad parts. Darwin was a great man and great men are entitled to the myths we create about them. Myths like that do more good than harm.
It sounds like a reasonable, even a humane, argument. But that argument has a lie at its heart. No lie is ever self-limiting. This isn’t just about Darwin. This is about so many other lies that go beyond (and before) Darwin. If scholars pass off some erroneous information about one man, they are bound to get it wrong about so many other people in this history. They are obligated to keep up the falsehoods so that the first one is never discovered.
There are scholars who try to portray Darwin’s science as kinder and gentler than it really was, but there is some harshness there, so who to blame that on? They will pin it on Thomas Robert Malthus or Herbert Spencer. There has been some good work on the fact that Social Darwinism can be found in Darwin himself. It is more likely Spencer came by his stern views because of Darwin’s influence than the other way around. I will reserve that for another time. I will instead say a few words here about Malthus.
If there was a supposedly kinder and gentler Darwin before Malthus, then Malthus must be the one to blame for Darwin’s turn for the worse. We forget, or erase the fact, that Malthus warned his readers not to apply his population principle to human beings in the same severe way that it applies in nature. We forget that he believed both extreme poverty and extreme wealth were bad for society. We forget that Malthus pointed out the inhumanity of exterminating native populations, he found it unthinkable, whereas Darwin found it quite acceptable. Suppressing the humane side of Malthus is an injustice, but it is necessary in order to create that kinder Darwin.
The accomplishments of the evolutionists before Darwin also have to be erased to make Darwin’s achievement seem all the greater. Darwin is often credited with being the first to prove evolution—not so, it was actually Robert Chambers who first made the case that evolution was more probable than special creation.
More significantly, Darwin’s theory is presented as one that makes the whole world a web of organic creatures, binding us all together. Darwin did not really do that. He emphasized a hierarchy of species in which some are dominant and others subordinate. Ranking groups was his thing. The living web of creatures was really the point of evolutionists like Erasmus Darwin and Chambers. Their great achievement has to be eliminated and given to Charles Darwin so that the myth can be maintained.
Natural scientists like Erasmus Darwin and Chambers more openly avowed a purposeful and progressive system than did Charles Darwin (there is purpose for him too, if more hidden), but these previous evolutionists held the whole to be more important than any one part. Chambers was emphatic that the highest place in the system was still only one place and had only one part to play in the whole. Erasmus Darwin celebrated ants and worms as our sisters and brothers. Chambers said the whole system and our relationship to other creatures mean we have to respect the rights and feelings of lower animals. Charles Darwin would never go this far. It is easy to forget his place in the history of evolutionary thought if we erase the work of those who went before him.
Charles Darwin usually gets credit for putting evolutionary theory on the map and making it a respectable scientific doctrine. But how many evolutionists before Darwin should get the credit for that? We have almost completely forgotten that a few months before Robert Chambers’ book came out in 1844, Emma Martin was in the streets, passing out one of her pamphlets (4,000 copies) arguing for evolution, and after the Chambers book appeared, she was going around giving lectures on it. So many people made evolutionary theory respectable, but we have to lie about that so that one man can be elevated above the rest. Ah, there’s justice for you.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Most of the evolutionists before Charles Darwin—his own grandfather Erasmus, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Constantine Rafinesque, and Robert Chambers—were far more holistic than he was. What was going on in the whole of nature grabbed their attention. They were excited by the idea that all creatures were related to each other and that this relation existed within the whole that gave each organism its part to play. Each of them may not have emphasized this idea in equal measure, but all of these naturalists gave it some force in their system of thought.
Lamarck argued that nature constituted a whole which did not act for the benefit of any one part. The whole might have a purpose, but whatever it is, the parts have no knowledge of it. Indeed, the parts of the whole may have a tendency to be very selfish and exaggerate their own importance. If a part could reason, it would probably say the whole is somehow deficient. In reality, the whole is perfectly organized and no one part may substitute itself for the whole.
For Lamarck, the development of the whole requires constant change in the parts—this is evolution, or la marche de la nature, as Lamarck called it—and if each part had a choice in the matter, it might wish to put a stop to that. But wherever evolution is headed, it must be good—at least, from the point of view of the whole.
Constant change was the key characteristic of evolution for Rafinesque. It should teach us, he argued, tolerance and love. We should honor the changes we see in nature. His view was that this is better than gloomy uniformity—which Chambers would call endless monotony. Chambers too celebrated variety and diversity in nature and our relationship to all other creatures. We all belong together in one vast system. This should teach us to respect the rights and feelings of lower animals. These are not my words. Rights and feelings are exactly the way Chambers put it.
Erasmus Darwin concluded we should love our brother emmets (ants) and sister worms. Rafinesque said the world was an organized animal rolling in space. Chambers compared nature to a pregnant woman going through stages of gestation. If they saw destruction and death in nature, as Erasmus Darwin and Rafinesque certainly did, they also saw rebirth in it. The continual birthing of new life forms gave them hope.
This is very different from the way Charles Darwin saw evolution. He did not emphasize wholeness and familial relationships so much as he emphasized a hierarchy of life forms with the dominant, (supposedly) most fit species on top. That is what comes through in The Origin of Species. Competition is perhaps the key factor in his scheme of evolution. Rafinesque abhorred competition. He believed it was destructive of human society.
Interestingly, Alfred Wallace, who came up with a version of natural selection similar to Darwin’s, also had ideas about the harm that competition among humans can do, especially competition between unequal parties—as, for example, competition between European nations and indigenous cultures. He wanted Europe to pull back from its ruthless pursuit of conquest and competition with societies that were not prepared for it.
And here is one of the most interesting points in all this: When we find racism in Darwin’s scientific thoughts about savages, it feels systemic. He builds it right into the system of nature as he saw it. Racism will sometimes rear its head in the writings of these other naturalists because it was a part of the society they lived in, but they never made it integral to their way of thinking. It rather appears as an aberration, something that does not really belong there. Racism has a kind of ideological permanency in Charles Darwin, but the others were headed in a very different direction. In their holism, racism does not play a part, even if this prejudice accidentally pops up on occasion.
Despite the deliberate overstatement in the title of this post, I would not say that holistic thinking is the only way to defeat racism, but it can help. And I would not say that anyone who fails to be holistic must inevitably incline towards racism. But it is interesting how often holism and anti-racism have gone together and it is especially instructive to see that there were other ways of being an evolutionist before Darwin, other ways which encouraged humanitarianism far more than he did.
©2014 Leon Zitzer

Monday, September 29, 2014


This month, on my other blog about the historical, Jewish Jesus, I presented an example of the difference between good scientific thinking and ideological thinking. I would like to do the same here. On the historical Jesus blog, I put it this way: In any scientific or scholarly field, it is always a good idea to think about what is the ideal evidence you would need to prove a theory or proposition. Always ask yourself: If this theory is true, what is the evidence I would expect to find to justify it?
That is a good way to proceed with the question of whether Darwin was a racist or not. If it is true, as many claim, that Darwin was not a racist, what sort of evidence would support this? If there is no evidence supporting a proposition, then it is ideology, or worse, mythology.
I suppose I should first answer the objection that this way of proceeding is faulty because racism is an anachronistic category for the 19th century. They just did not think in those terms back then. I have answered this many times in previous posts, but to sum up here: The only reason people make the claim that racism was not a known category in Darwin’s century is that they did not use this expression. But they certainly used equivalent terms: complexional distinctions, complexional misanthrope, physical antipathy to people of color, prejudice, and more. In fact, some writers strongly objected to making negative judgments about whole races and nations, arguing that only individuals can be put on “a gradatory scale”, not groups. I hope people will finally realize that racism was a very real problem in the 19th century, even if the genuine anti-racists were few and far between.
So the question is whether Darwin was not a racist and perhaps was even a real anti-racist. If so, we would expect to see some of the following evidence:
Staking out a position of anti-racism. An anti-racist Darwin would have stated somewhere his opposition to thinking in racial or group terms. He would have, like one British military officer, clearly objected to ranking races and would have insisted that individuals are supreme in his thinking.
Challenging others who were racists. Many people in Darwin’s time took a definite racist stance. This included his friends Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker. Even if Darwin did not want to attack his friends, there were plenty of other racist scientists and writers whom Darwin could have criticized.
Emphasizing his scientific position. He should have taken the trouble to point out that his theory of natural selection applies only to individuals and should never be used to make distinctions among groups or to advocate that some groups are superior to others or naturally more dominant.
For the most part, all this evidence is non-existent. I suppose that it is remotely possible that in private conversations, Darwin made some of this clear, but if so, none of it made its way into writing. If no one memorialized in writing any encounters of conversing with Darwin in this manner, then this is entirely useless speculation. All we can do is base ourselves on the written evidentiary record. That record is entirely empty of any truly anti-racist thinking.
There is only one slight exception to this. Darwin knew there was a lot of variation in any group. He did not lump all individuals of a group into one bag and he did not lump all non-European groups into one racial judgment. He could occasionally offer a positive opinion of this or that group. He thought Tahitians were much higher than other savages he met. But as Stephen Gould admitted, Darwin had his prejudices (which Gould tries to play down by claiming they were the result of paternalism, not racism) and the only way you can make it appear he did not have prejudices is by selective quotation.
Basically, not only is there no evidence to establish the above points, but all the evidence points the other way. Even in The Origin of Species, he is constantly ranking groups and making it very clear that natural selection explains why some species are more dominant than others. Natural selection explains the existence of species and races and why, in a system of competition, some beat others in the game of survival. He is even more blunt about it in The Descent of Man. He never challenges anyone for racist thinking, and in his time, there were many who were far more viciously racist than he was.
Darwin was not an ostentatious racist. He usually did not gloat over the superiority of white, European civilization (though he occasionally comes close to gloating). But the evidentiary record is very clear that he did hold racist ideas. There is no evidence that would make anti-racism a reasonable theory about Darwin’s beliefs. His alleged anti-racism is purely the result of ideology. It is part of the mythology of Darwin and has nothing to do with the real, historical Darwin.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, August 28, 2014


Last month (post below), I offered my comments on Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance and its scientific racism. The more I think about it, the more I realize that science has little to do with any of this. There has been some controversy over whether Wade has been accurate in reporting the results in recent genetic and population studies. But all that is beside the point.
Scientific racism in general has little to do with science. Writers like Wade make certain racist assumptions about human cultures, arranging them in a hierarchy, and then they look for something scientific, or scientific sounding, to back it up. Those assumptions precede the science. The science or pseudo-science is an afterthought. The purpose of the “science” is to make the racist assumptions appear reasonable. You could take out all the discussion about genetics from Wade’s book and it would still have a strong racist tinge.
They did the same thing in the 19th century when they knew nothing about genes. They used evolutionary theory to back up their prejudices and Wade uses genetic theories, but it comes to the same thing. The science is actually irrelevant. The biased assumptions are the key to it all. In the post below, I explored how much Wade has in common with 19th century scientific racists, such as the way he puts Australian Aborigines at the bottom of the human scale.
It is interesting that Wade has absolutely no curiosity about Aboriginal or any other indigenous culture. The details of their cultures and their accomplishments hold no interest for him. He puts a label on them, he sticks them in a category—they are tribal or hunter-gatherers, which are his synonyms for savage, the 19th century simplification—and declares that to be inferior to western civilization. Tribalism or savagery serves to constitute their entire identity.
His excuse for doing this, insofar as he has one, is that he is interested in only one thing: material success. That is his measuring rod for all cultures and since western culture has produced more of this, it becomes the emblem of superiority. That native peoples may have a different relationship to nature is not allowed to enter the picture.
He also leaves out some of the reasons for the west’s success. He picks out positive things like the ability to socially cooperate and an encouragement of questioning and innovation. That is part of it, no doubt. But he leaves out other factors like excessive greed and bloodthirstiness. How much were bullying and outright theft responsible for western achievements? Europe stole a lot of gold and silver from other countries to finance its growth, not to mention the expropriation of land, resources, and labor. How many natives were killed along the way? In short: At what cost to others was western success achieved? It is a question Wade will never ask.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Monday, July 28, 2014


The book is A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History in which Wade argues that differences in genes have played a big role in the different social behaviors and institutions of each race. Below is the review I posted on Amazon (July 23), with a few sentences I have added here and there for the sake of greater clarity. I gave the book one star for primarily one reason: It is a very deceptive book. He mixes honesty and dishonesty in such a way as to cover himself from the charge of making overstatements, but leaving you with the impression that everything he says about genes is probably true. He wants to be nice and objective, but ends up being subjective and biased against other cultures. Here is the slightly expanded review:
There is a lot of speculation in this book, as Wade admits early on, and he does not prove his thesis, as he himself tells us at the end. Despite these admissions, he pushes very hard to establish genetics as the key to explaining why races have developed along different paths. Yet he constantly acknowledges how important culture is. He accomplishes nothing more than to say that human societies result from the effects of a combination of genes, culture, and environment. He admits we don’t know what the precise mix is (241), but he clearly wants a bigger role for genetics.
To get to the central controversy: Will Wade’s speculations about genes and race lead to increased racism? He tries to reassure the reader they will not. He has a subtle point to make and a naïve point.
The subtle point is that we have learned that all human beings are essentially the same with only slight differences in genetic make-up. Because of this, Wade argues that no group of individuals can claim superiority over other individuals. That should make ideas of superiority untenable. Many people have already made this point. If that was all there was to this book, why write it?
Wade continues that though individual differences are very small, they lead to big differences on the social level. He believes genes can explain why the Industrial Revolution happened in England and why western civilization has been far more materially successful than any other culture. This only translates the problem of racism from the biological level to a combination of biology and culture. Wade probably believes that if you took an infant from any race and raised it in another society, it would turn out to be just as capable as any individual native to that society. But adult human beings are reflections of their cultures, so if Wade argues that western culture is superior to any other, then that means its adults are superior.
Words like ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ do not appear in Wade’s book, but there is an unmistakable celebration of western civilization here. Wade makes it very clear that the west is at the top of the heap and deserves to be. He is not above using words like ‘ingrained’ and ‘inbuilt’ to describe social behavior (see 177, 189), implying that western social behavior and institutions are innately better. He argues that it is not accident or luck that the west has outpaced other societies (196, 238).
This brings me to his naïve point: Since we have established anti-racism as a matter of policy, no science can undo that. “The lessons of past abuses are still vivid enough,” he says (249). Apparently, he has never heard of how prone we are to repeating our mistakes. What makes it so ironic in Wade’s case is that he repeats many of the same things 19th century scientific racists gave us.
They indulged in ranking societies, with hunter-gatherers at the bottom, agricultural societies above them, and western civilization at the top. So does Wade. No surprise that Wade puts Australian Aborigines at the bottom just as they did (64). Though he never uses the word ‘savages’, he constantly draws the same distinction between civilized and savage, using ‘tribal’ and ‘hunter-gatherer’ as his preferred terms for the latter, and though he would never stoop to using ‘inferior’ as they did in the 19th century, he constantly trumpets the greater economic success of the west; ‘ingrained behaviors’ (189) is just a euphemism for innate superiority and inferiority. That is the central message of the book, delivered in a very dishonest way.
Worst of all, his insistence that we in the west may have slightly better social genes (with only speculation to support this) is just a repetition of the 19th century claim that God favored us or blessed us. What is the difference between believing that evolution has blessed us and God has blessed us? Both lead to the same arrogance – for who does not believe that evolution is not a whimsical, arbitrary god? Wade claims that evolution has no purpose or goal (178, 249), but his belief that the rise of the west is no accident belies that. He clearly believes that western civilization is the outcome of what the evolution of man has been headed for all along.
Wade of course will not proclaim that inferior cultures (e.g., the less economically successful tribal cultures) must be exterminated in this process, as 19th century scientific racists were all too happy to announce, but he says essentially the same thing when he says that tribal culture and modern, western society are incompatible (173, 178). He leaves no doubt that other cultures have to disappear under the onslaught of the west. He is just too polite to say they must become extinct.
Evolution (the idea of species descending from a common progenitor) is basically a sound science, but I don’t think any science has been as misused as evolution. Recently, I saw an old film, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” with Barbara Stanwyck and Kirk Douglas. After the District Attorney has an old friend beaten up by detectives and thrown out of town (he is paranoid that the friend may be intending to blackmail him about an unsolved past murder), the friend is determined to head back, despite the pleadings of his girlfriend. He says something like: “I don’t like being pushed around. I don’t like seeing anyone pushed around.”
This protest against getting pushed around is the anti-natural selection mantra. Natural selection is the validation of pushing others around. But what I’d rather say is that pushing people around represents not natural selection, but the most common misuse of natural selection. This was Darwin’s theory of evolution, which Wade often mentions, and Darwin was as guilty as anyone else of misusing the theory in this way. He insisted on the inferiority of savages and their inevitable extermination by western civilization. Humanity, he said, would only rise higher when the lower races were all gone. Wade treads the same path when he insists that tribal societies are incompatible with modern society.
Like many other writers, like Niall Ferguson in Civilization, Wade has a strong bias to select only evidence that puts western civilization in the best light possible. He never presents any evidence for the rapacity of the west. When Wade discusses western economic success, he does not point out how much of this depended on outright theft. He never considers that all the gold and silver Europe took from the new world was used to finance its growth, nor the way Europe dispossessed natives of land and resources.
He never asks at what cost to others this success was achieved, how many people were killed so that Europeans could take it all. He looks at studies that might reveal there are genes for trust and cooperation and even aggression and violence which we highly value. But he does not look to see if there are genes for bullying, ruthlessness, bloodthirstiness, hypocrisy, or in general, scumbagginess. What if the west succeeded because Europeans have a set of genes for being a scumbag towards the Other?
I offer this for the pure, wild speculation that it is, only to make the point that our values show up in the things we choose to look for. There is a bias in the studies that Wade cites. No one wants to discover anything that would detract from the greatness of western civilization, so we don’t look for it, though it may well be there. Genes for excessive greed and bullying—for winning by any means necessary, by fair means or foul—are just as speculative and plausible as anything Wade is looking for. But no one will look for such genes because it would be too demoralizing to find them. It may turn out, as many 19th century humanitarians complained, that we are just polished savages.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer


Monday, June 30, 2014


Even people who do not like admitting there was racism in Darwin’s work, in his hierarchy of groups subordinate to groups (as he put it in Origin), have to acknowledge that it is a pretty rough and tumble world that Darwin describes, with only a few groups (or species or races) coming out on top. Competition to the death is the norm in Darwin’s world and not only for Darwin. This is how the majority of intellectuals in his day saw it.
But not everyone. Some thinkers objected to this worldview or at least to its universal applicability. Alfred Wallace, who is often described as the co-discoverer of natural selection, did not want to see the principle of competition extended to the relationship between Europeans and indigenous peoples. He understood that competition between a stronger party and a weaker one would lead to the complete destruction of the weaker side. If we do not let up in our competition with the newly discovered countries, we will end up exterminating these peoples and that would be an injustice. He was not alone in thinking this. About thirty years earlier, a missionary to New Zealand made the same point. Competition will cause the natives to die out.
Darwin was fine with the extermination of native tribes. It was only natural as he saw it. Some called it the law of might makes right. Darwin did not like his theory being summed up this way (as one letter to Charles Lyell makes clear) but it was not an unfair summary. He had ended Chapter 7 of Origin with “let the strongest live and the weakest die.” Competition was almost always lethal for Darwin.
If I had to put anyone at the opposite pole of Darwin’s thinking, it would be John Locke. I don’t think there has ever been a more anti-might-makes-right philosopher than John Locke. This is especially evident in the Second Treatise on civil government. It may be that Darwin was a natural scientist or biologist and Locke a political philosopher, but Darwin did extend his theory to human society, so comparing them is not unfair.
The word that looms largest for Locke is consent. That is how disputes should be resolved and not by force. Not only does might not make for right in Locke’s vision, but more might makes for even less right. Greater force or status cannot justify taking something, like land, from another by force.
When an “Aggressor … unjustly invades another Man’s Right, [he] cannever come to have a Right over the Conquered …” (all emphases are Locke’s). He compares such unjust rulers to robbers and pirates. An unjust conqueror is like a robber who gains title to a man’s estate by holding a dagger to his throat. “The Injury and the Crime is equal, whether committed by the wearer of a Crown, or some petty Villain. The Title of the Offender, and the Number of his Followers, make no difference in the Offence, unless it be to aggravate it.” Think of what Locke is saying: Not only does might or status not make right, but it makes for less right and magnifies the crime.
Locke is so strong on this that he insists that the descendants of a people forcibly deprived of their land never lose their right to it and can continue to make claims for it. This is the very opposite of what colonialists would assert. Extermination is not at all in the worldview of Locke. He rather promotes the idea of hanging on until justice is yours. Darwin’s work fits in well with colonialism which fantasized about native extermination, but Locke’s does not. They are at opposite ends of the spectrum of ideas about human society. There have always been thinkers who opposed the principles of might and extermination, even when they were at their height in the heyday of European colonialism. We have just tended to ignore them.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Friday, May 30, 2014


Darwin was not alone in thinking that the native races of the world were bound for extinction, with a little help from their European friends. The question has been asked why they were so sure of this, why were they constantly trumpeting this news. What did it mean to them that they felt compelled to repeat it so often? I should note that there were humanitarians who were horrified by this exterminatory boasting. They saw nothing good in the disappearance of native peoples, nor did they think it was inevitable. James Bonwick in 1870 quoted one author who believed that anyone who suggested the extinction of natives was inevitable was himself a barbarian. Darwin and most of this fellow scientists did not see it that way. They seemed positively glad to see it coming.
It must have made them feel so superior for one thing. Walter Bagehot, editor of the Economist who also wrote a series of articles that Darwin favorably referred to in The Descent of Man, noted that savage tribes were not in danger of being exterminated when confronted with the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, but they are facing that danger at the hands of modern civilization. This was a good observation according to Darwin. It proves, Bagehot argued, how superior we are not only to savages but to the ancient world which could not exterminate the people we are capable of eliminating.
For many European intellectuals and scientists, the ability to annihilate other people was evidence of superiority. As Henry Reynolds has put it, in their world, there had to be winners and losers in nature’s battleground. The fact of there being losers confirmed that the winners were all the more so.
Other reasons have also been given for the prevalence of this belief that extermination would be the destiny of inferior peoples. Russell McGregor has suggested that the advocates of inevitability were pessimistic over the ability of savages to improve and adopt western civilization with all its material benefits. I think there is some truth to that, but I don’t think it was a deeply earned pessimism. After the first few decades of the 19th century, these doomed race theorists were so quick to conclude the natives must be so inferior, since they have advanced so little. Their conclusion was cheap and arrived at with very little thought. Bonwick more sensibly pointed out that it was irrational to suppose that savages could arrive in a few years at a place it took Europeans thousands of years to reach.
One of the more obvious reasons for believing in the inevitable decline and disappearance of natives, especially considering how much Europeans were adopting policies pushing them in this direction, is that it relieved European nations of any moral responsibility. If extinction was natural, then Europe has nothing to feel guilty about. Not that humanitarians at the time did not try to make the exterminationists feel guilty. John Lort Stokes, a Commander in the Royal Navy (and later on an Admiral), was one such. “I am not willing to believe,” he wrote in 1846, “that … there is an absence of moral responsibility on the part of the whites; I must deny that it is in obedience to some all-powerful law, the inevitable operation of which exempts us from blame, that the depopulation of the countries we colonize goes on.” But an all-powerful law is exactly what Darwin and so many others believed in.
Then there is the matter of greed. If you are going to take everything from a people—their land, their resources, their freedom of movement—then it logically follows that the people have to go also. British colonists were very clear that they wanted it all, especially the land. And how are the people supposed to live if you take all their land from them? The all consuming nature of the greed demands that extermination must follow. Human greed makes it inevitable, if it is inevitable at all.
They turned out to be wrong. The widespread extermination they predicted never took place. It was a bad theory. McGregor points out they did not have the empirical data to back it up. But Herman Merivale had made this point in 1841 and no one was listening. It was worse than a bad theory. They proclaimed the inevitable demise of native races as if it were a fact, only it was a false fact. As Darwin well knew, false facts do plenty of harm to science. They are hard to get rid of. False facts are tenacious. Darwin was the one who usually exposed false facts. But this was one time, it got away from him and he fell for a false fact hook, line, and sinker.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Monday, April 28, 2014


It’s been hard to find the time to post this month and answer the question I posed at the end of last month’s entry. I will be concise, I hope.
The obvious answer is that mythmaking is usually carried out by people in power. They need to invent lots of things to hold onto that. A myth or a hero serves both as a symbol of power and to consolidate power. Darwin, whether he liked it or not, was made to serve as a weapon in a contrived battle between science and religion.
Even apart from any conflict (real or imagined) with religion, every field of endeavor—and science is no exception—seems to need powerful figures that others must be made to worship. Whether science serves mainly the rich or also the poor and middle class is a question that is trumped by worship of invented heroes. Professional science turns out to be not much different from organized religion.
Much more could be said about all this, but I am interested in a more subtle reason for mythmaking. Not only do myths create a false reality, they are also used to obliterate parts of reality that really do exist. They create a forgetfulness. Heroes are often used to erase some quite genuine heroes we would rather not know about, or actually, those in power would prefer we not know about them. And here I will give a concrete example.
Darwin and his fellow scientists sometimes pondered the dubious question: Which human race is the lowest? For Darwin, it was a toss-up between the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego and the Aborigines of Australia. This belies the idea that Darwin was a great humanitarian. Those who do acknowledge that Darwin thought like this usually make the excuse for him that everyone at the time indulged in this kind of thinking.
Well, not everyone. We’ve been made to forget.
By making an idol out of Darwin, we have covered up those who were the real genuine humanitarians of the day. I can give no better example than a certain British military officer whose name I won’t reveal just yet. I’ll keep that card close to my chest. A couple of decades before The Origin of Species, he was denouncing racism and, among other things, the use of science to make men rich. He knew he was reaping “the ineffable contempt” of men of science and political economists, but he could not help it. As he said, “[W]hen David slew Goliath, he gave great encouragement to little men!”
This military men was well aware that many people held opinions about the lowest races and often characterized Aborigines as the missing link between man and monkey. This disgusted him. He insisted that only individuals could be ranked, not races or nations. He believed that the Creator had endowed savages with physical and mental faculties equal to ours. They might wear different clothes or no clothes at all, but under the skin, we were all the same. Savages had the same intellectual capacities or potential as ourselves.
All this is as clear an anti-racist position as any that has ever been expressed. And this officer did not stop there. He demanded that all must be treated equally under the law. As you might guess, he severely criticized the brutality of colonialism. So did many others.
In particular, another British military officer called “the depopulation of the countries we colonize” a “national crime” and said that the supposed inevitability of the extinction of Aboriginal races (which Darwin, by the way, believed in) should not be used as an excuse to evade moral responsibility.
It is remarkable that two military officers should have been so far ahead in humanity than most scientists. Not to be outdone, an Oxford professor argued that the law of the inevitability of Aboriginal extinction, as espoused by Darwin (whom he otherwise admired) and others, was imaginary. On a slightly different point, that second military officer said that colonists have believed in “an erroneous theory, which they found to tally with their interests … That the aborigines were not men, but brutes … and what cruelties have flowed from such a doctrine.”
Erroneous theories and imaginary laws—of science, no less. The first military man thought all these bad ideas came from an obsession with national wealth (he complained that his countrymen were always bragging that Britain was the wealthiest nation on earth). National wealth was used to justify everything from child labor to nasty treatment of the Irish to the brutal ways of colonialism. To say he was distressed by this, and by the misuse of science to enhance wealth rather than create true happiness, would be an understatement.
I don’t ask that everyone should agree with all this man argued for. But that he stood for the equality and fair treatment of all human beings is undeniable, and that he risked speaking truth to power about these things must also not be denied. If that does not make him one of the real heroes in our western history, I don’t know what would make anyone a hero.
I apologize for not revealing the names of these worthy humanitarians. Let my withholding of their names serve as a symbolic reminder of the injustice done to them by the many historians and scholars who have erased them from history. I will certainly reveal all of them in my book, whenever it is done, which won’t be for a while yet.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, March 29, 2014


We like to think that ancient peoples were mired in myths and that we have evolved beyond that. But if anyone were to list all the myths we still believe in, it would fill more than one volume. I am not concerned with all myths. Just the ones about Darwin and the history of science are my main concern. These myths are so firmly ingrained. You cannot read any article or book about Darwin or that relates to Darwin in some way without being bombarded with sheer ignorance about this history.
On January 19, 2014, in the Sunday Times Book Review, there was a review of a book about how species spread around the globe. The reviewer, Jonathan Weiner, wrote that in Darwin’s day, “the reigning explanation was supernatural: God put them there. Darwin’s thinking was more mundane.” Everyone wants to believe that 1859, when The Origin of Species was published, inaugurated a revolution in biological thinking. That is about as far from truth as one can get.
Long before Origin, other scientists were thinking mundane, as Weiner might put it. Robert Chambers made his points in public fifteen years before. He was as critical of the idea of special creation by God as an explanation of anything as Darwin was. His book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) was exceedingly popular. Darwin’s book did not overtake Vestiges in sales until the 20th century. Darwin was not influenced by Chambers. He was making the same points privately in his unpublished essays of 1842 and 1844. But what has to be remembered is that Chambers was preparing the public for mundane thinking. There were ten editions of his book before Origin. The public and many fledgling scientists were gobbling it up. They were impressed for a good reason. Chambers did a good job.
By the time 1859 rolled around, special creation was no longer the reigning explanation. Herbert Spencer had also previously joined in the attack (in an 1852 essay which was republished in an 1858 book). Special creation may not have been quite knocked out of contention, but there was more doubt and confusion than there had been in 1844. It was more the case that Darwin’s book took advantage of the changing times than that he started something new. Credit also has to go to Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the French naturalist who was arguing for the evolution of human beings from apes, and the evolution of all living things, in 1809, the year Darwin was born. Darwin would not talk about human evolution until 1871 in The Descent of Man.
I was also startled to see some odd comments in an article on new ideas about plants in a recent issue of The New Yorker (Dec. 23 & 30, 2013) by Michael Pollan. Here too Darwin is a revolutionary. This time, the revolution is the idea that man is continuous with the rest of nature and Darwin is the man who singlehandedly started it. “Since ‘The Origin of Species,’ we have understood, at least intellectually, the continuities among life’s kingdoms—that we are all cut from the same fabric of nature.” Darwin, Pollan says, “brought the humbling news that we are the product of the same natural laws that created animals.” These are quite the overstatements. There were many others who had pressed for this understanding and while it is true that Darwin also promoted this, his main effort lay elsewhere.
What Darwin emphasized was that there is a hierarchy in nature, groups subordinate to groups, some weaker, some more dominant and stronger, with man at the summit as he tells us at the end of Descent. Even in Origin, also at the end, he takes the view that evolution has been leading to “the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving … the higher animals.”
Everybody put man at the top. Robert Chambers did it too, just like Darwin. Well, we all do, if we are honest. But with Chambers, there is a profound difference. Chambers brought the truly humbling news that every place in nature, even the highest place occupied by man, is just one part of the whole and the whole is more important than any one piece, no matter how high it may be. Lamarck too stressed the whole of nature over individuals. Darwin stressed dominance and weakness and individuals in fierce competition.
Darwin and Chambers both believed that human and animal intelligence were different in degree only—yes, others fought for the idea of gradations and made the public aware of it; Darwin was no sort of lone knight—but Chambers drew a conclusion that Darwin never would. Because of our close relationship to animals, “We are bound to respect the rights of animals … even their feelings.” Darwin would never say that. “LIFE is everywhere ONE” is what evolution meant to Chambers and from this he concluded that this new view of nature, as he called it, “extends the principle of humanity to the meaner creatures also.” It is Chambers we have to thank for this kind of thinking, not Darwin. (Brevity forces me to omit how much Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck contributed to holistic thinking. Not to mention more obscure personalities who thought about what was sometimes called ‘network theory’, and all this before Charles Darwin put his two cents in. His two shillings?)
It is true that Darwin hated cruelty towards animals, but he was not prepared to go as far as Chambers did in his remarks. In 1875, Darwin testified before a Royal Commission investigating experimentation on live animals. At the end of his testimony, he made his feelings clear about experiments done without anesthesia if was not absolutely necessary to do so. But the whole purpose of his testimony was to plead with the Commission not to ban such experiments altogether. Darwin stated, “I am fully convinced that physiology can progress only by the aid of experiments on living animals.” It would be “a very great evil,” he said, to prohibit them altogether. In a letter to a professor that was later published in the London Times, he called the prohibition of these experiments a crime against mankind. Respecting the rights and feelings of animals was not the way he would have expressed himself.
So why all this mythologizing of Darwin? And why the misrepresentation of all that evolutionists accomplished before Darwin? Since this post is getting quite long, I will try to answer these questions in the next one.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Monday, February 24, 2014


Every thinker is holistic in the sense that they want to explain the whole of life with one principle. Even someone who advocates pluralism wants to bring everything under that umbrella. Who isn’t a holistic thinker? You can count Darwin in on this too. But true holistic thinking is about making the whole more important than the parts, and that does not fit Darwin’s vision.
Decades before Darwin’s Origin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who deserves more credit for helping to establish evolution than he usually gets, gave what could be considered a classic statement of holism:
“Nature—that immense assemblage of various existences and bodies … an eternal cycle of movements and changes controlled by laws—an assemblage that is only immutable so long as it pleases her sublime Author to continue her existence—should be regarded as a whole made up of parts, with a purpose that is known to its Author alone, but at any rate not for the sole benefit of any single part.” He goes on to say that “each part has an interest which is contrary to that of the whole; and if it reasons, it finds that the whole is badly made.”
The reasoning of a selfish being (like man, though he does not explicitly say this) does not really understand the whole and will misconceive what benefits the big picture. Darwin’s system is not so much about the wholeness of nature as about those parts, each struggling for its own aims. The reasoning creature places all things in a hierarchy of groups (which the whole, if it reasons, would probably not do) and puts a particular emphasis on dominant groups beating the weaker in the struggle for life. Every organism falls under the rule of competition. Darwin’s entire thinking is about distinguishing between success and failure, and banishing the failed groups to non-existence.
It is easy to be a racist in Darwin’s scheme. Or, let’s say his thinking serves racism well because superior and inferior are constant categories. It is much harder to be a racist in holistic thinking because superiority, success, and dominance are not key elements.
I am not arguing that every system of thought necessarily has fixed consequences. One could be holistic and yet believe that inferior and superior groups are a part of life and that the inferior must suffer the consequences. And one could embrace the competitiveness of natural selection and still think that the stronger groups must care for the weaker and not abuse them. These are not impossibilities. But it does not usually work out this way.
Darwin took the competition embedded in natural selection as far as it could go—to the detriment of all those “lower races” that he anticipated would be exterminated by Anglo-Saxons. On a personal level, he was more compassionate than that, but compassion is not inherent in the design of Darwin’s theory. Even in Descent where he speaks of the patriotic and brave as sacrificing themselves for their country, it feels tacked on to the theory. In Origin, he told us that every individual is out for its own good and that natural selection will never produce a change in one organism for the exclusive purpose of benefitting another.
Whereas someone like Robert Chambers, who was as genuinely holistic as Lamarck, believed that man had only a place in the whole and that this place, even if exalted, did not give him any superior rights. Animals, for example, had rights and feelings too, which had to be respected by mankind—not something Darwin would ever say. So although holistic thinking is no guarantee of compassion and humanitarianism, it is far more likely to get you there.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


When scholars give examples of the influences of Darwin’s work, especially as to the extremes his ideas could be taken to, they love to cite Alfred Wallace’s 1864 essay “The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of ‘Natural Selection’”.  Wallace states his belief that Darwin’s law of the struggle for life “leads to the inevitable extinction of all those low and mentally undeveloped populations” and this results from “the inevitable effects of an unequal mental and physical struggle” with Europeans who are superior. The lower races are doomed.
Of course, scholars could have quoted Darwin making the same point, but they rarely do. Darwin says the same thing as Wallace in The Descent of Man (1871) and he made this point even earlier in letters. Just before On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, Darwin informed Charles Lyell that he believes natural selection is continuing to work on the human intellect with “the less intellectual races being exterminated.” Three years later, he is telling another correspondent that when all the lower human races are gone, “in consequence how much the Human race, viewed as a unit, will have risen in rank.” But many scholars would prefer to stick it to Wallace or other Darwinists rather than Darwin himself.
Wallace would grow to have doubts about applying natural selection to mankind in the same way it is applied to plants and animals, but even in that early paper, he revealed a tendency to be less severe than Darwin. He recognized that savages (“the rudest tribes”) are “social and sympathetic” and take care of their sick and feeble, so that “The action of natural selection is therefore checked.” Darwin objected to this positive assessment of savages as social and scribbled in the margin of his copy of this paper, “Does not act … only civilized man!” Already, despite all they had in common, Wallace was thinking a little differently about human beings.
In another paper, only a year after “The Origin of Human Races”, Wallace considered that competition with western civilization was detrimental to savages and that Europe should draw back from going full tilt at these native cultures. It is “unwise and unjust,” he said, to “expose them at once to the full tide of competition with our highly elaborated civilisation …” Such competition will lead to their extermination. He clearly did not think this was inevitable or something to be celebrated.
He was not the only one to see the dangers of competition to Aborigines. In 1837, the Rev. Montagu Hawtrey, a missionary in New Zealand, argued that even if we gave natives full equal rights with white people, we would still end up destroying them. “[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.” Why does this happen? In a word: Competition. Britain, he says, has become a highly competitive society where “every individual is more or less in a state of competition with every other individual.” The natives will not be able to keep up. Unfettered competition will drive Aborigines to extinction. Hawtrey’s comments are a reminder that this social world of intense competition was Darwin’s cultural context.
Near the end of Darwin’s life, Wallace wrote to tell him that he was rethinking whether the Malthusian population principle (which had inspired both of them, as Wallace reminded him) can work with human beings in the same way as with the rest of nature. He said an American socialist had made this suggestion. Darwin responded to this letter, but not to this point. He did tell Wallace that he hoped he would not abandon science for politics. And applying the lens of competition to nature is not political?
What everyone, including Wallace and Darwin, had forgotten was that Malthus himself had pointed out that his population principle does not work out among human beings as it does with nature in the wild. It is purer, severer, more intense in the natural world than it is in human society. Also, Malthus did not like what he saw in colonialism, in its tendency to exterminate native peoples. He had no philosophy that the lower races must be doomed and wrote that “the right of exterminating, or driving [them] into a corner where they must starve … will be questioned in a moral view.” It was immoral and unthinkable for him.
I take note of these aspects of Malthus because some scholars blame him for the harshness in Darwin’s vision of natural selection. But Malthus did not make Darwin interpret the struggle for life as ruthlessly as he did for human beings. Malthus’ advice would have been to hold back from that. Humans are not like other animals who have no control over their situation. Darwin took Malthus, or his principle, to a place he did not want to go. Darwin did this all on his own without any instruction from Malthus.

Of the three, Darwin was the most extreme. Fatal competition was at the heart of Darwin’s system for both nature in general and for humanity. He could live with it if competition sometimes had devastating effects. Some form of the word appears about 70 times in Origin. It is not surprising that he would be unmoved by Wallace’s suggestion to reconsider how the pressure of limited food production affects human population. That pressure creates competition which was key to his thinking. It also just so happens that competition was a major component of British society. Wallace was capable of questioning his own basic assumptions. Darwin not so much.
We have three thinkers—Wallace, Darwin, and Malthus—all of whom saw the importance of the principle “more are yearly bred than can possibly survive” (as Darwin phrased it), yet each of them employed it in different ways with respect to humankind. How does one explain this? Different temperaments perhaps.
All three were British and Christian, but those are broad categories. It means they shared some cultural context. Wallace in addition was working class and had gone to work at an early age. That does not necessarily mean one would have more sympathy for the downtrodden and powerless, but in Wallace’s case, it did. Malthus has been interpreted as a mean-spirited economist, indifferent to the fate of the poor. But he was critical of Adam Smith for devoting too much attention to the wealthy and not enough to poor people. He believed there was little one could do for the poor, but little did not mean nothing.
Maybe it all does come down to temperament. Maybe there were adults who influenced then as children. Whatever it was, it is important to see how distinct each one was, even where they relied on a shared, crucial insight.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer