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