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