The biggest worry that people seem to have about Darwin’s racism and his devotion to colonialism is that if established as thoroughly true, then this will undermine the theory of evolution. It won’t. No matter what Darwin’s prejudices were, no matter even if he misused the theory of evolution, the science of evolution is safe. That is because there is more than one way to be an evolutionist. Even when it comes to natural selection, Darwin’s version of evolution, there is more than one way to pursue it.
People forget a basic fact of history: Darwin does not own the idea of evolution. He was not the first to propose it or even the first to prove that it is more probable than special or independent creation (the belief that God created each species separately). Evolutionary theory has a history that goes back well before Charles Darwin entered the picture. By the time Darwin’s The Origin of Species appeared in 1859, probably a majority, or at least something close to a majority, of the general population in England believed that the birth of new species, in descent from older species, made sense. It was an attractive idea and its popularity was due in part to Robert Chambers, who put together enough evidence (in 1844) to demonstrate that it made more sense than the prevailing theory of independent creation.
The majority of professional scientists was still stuck in the older idea. This was one case where the people were ahead of the scientists. It was the reason why Chambers had such a hard time of it and had to publish anonymously. His book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, caught the people’s fancy, but scientists gave him quite a knocking. Almost half a century earlier, Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, enthusiastically promoted evolution, called generation in his time, and while he may not have proved it, he presented enough evidence to make it a reasonable theory to pursue. A common argument made by many was that the generation of new species was very much like the generation, or birth, of new individuals, and that the birth of a new species was as normal as the birth of a baby. Just a few months before Chambers’s book, Emma Martin was handing out pamphlets in the street, comparing the two types of generation.
But the intellectual atmosphere was still too hostile. In France, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck would make the theory more reasonable still, but his name became a term of abuse among English scientists. In America, Constantine Rafinesque wrote a long poem, which is really more of an essay, called The World, or, Instability, arguing that we should welcome constant change as a law of life. He was also one of the first to argue that racism against other human beings was irrational.
The previous evolutionists were much more holistic than Charles Darwin. They saw each part of the whole, including the various races, as serving the whole in some way. Darwin changed that. He saw nature as a hierarchy of groups, with dominant groups becoming ever more dominant and wiping out the weaker groups. You can already see the seeds of disaster in that point of view. But whatever prejudices and preconceptions Darwin dragged into this, his way was not the only way to espouse evolution and his way was not the original way to be an evolutionist.
For some evolutionists, having a common ancestor would engender a feeling of brotherhood among all peoples. Darwin unfortunately did not see it that way. For him, the common ancestor evolved into varying descendants, descendants that were so different that some could be said to be higher than others.
It is important to distinguish between a theory and the ways it can be misused. If it turns out that Charles Darwin made a contribution to both, that does not invalidate the former. If we remember how many people made evolutionary theory a reasonable theory (before and after Darwin), then it should not be upsetting to learn that Darwin did not always advocate the theory in the purest, most objective way. His failings are independent of the theory. If we don’t pay careful attention to this history, we will miss a much needed lesson in humility.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer