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] can … never 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