Tuesday, December 29, 2015


How serious are the prejudices in Charles Darwin’s writings? Unlike someone like Adam Gopnik who is in complete denial about these prejudices, Stephen Gould recognized in The Mismeasure of Man that you cannot make Darwin out to be an egalitarian. Darwin definitely believed in a hierarchy of cultures, with European civilization at the top. But Gould tries to soften Darwin’s views into a kind of gentle paternalism. Based on his own standards, that does not hold up.

Before I get to that, I should say that Gould made the inaccurate claim that “All [in Darwin’s time] were racists by modern standards,” though earlier he had made an exception for Alfred Wallace who has been “justly hailed as an antiracist.” So in a sense, Gould was admitting that Darwin might well have been a racist, but that is excusable because everyone in that time was. The problem is that Gould erased plenty of antiracists besides Wallace. Just one more example is Charles Napier, a British military hero. In 1835, he objected to the ranking of races and indignantly denied that Australian Aborigines formed a missing link between man and monkey. Darwin, like so many other racists of his time, pondered the question of which race was the lowest and had a hard time deciding whether it was the Australians or the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego. For someone like Napier, this was nonsense.

Even taking at face value that remark about all being racist, Gould acknowledged that there were harsher racists and kindlier racists. Here, he said, is how we can distinguish them: “those we now judge most harshly urged that inferiority be used as an excuse for dispossession and slavery, while those we most admire in retrospect urged a moral principle of equal rights and nonexploitation, whatever the biological status of people.” I ask: Which one most accurately describes colonialism?

In the very next sentence, Gould claimed, “Darwin held this second position along with the two Americans best regarded by later history [Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln].” That is true for Darwin only in regard to legal slavery. It is an untrue statement when it comes to the issue of colonialism and the extermination of the colonized. On that score, Darwin held the first position—the inferiority of savages justified Europeans taking their land. Colonialism was as dispossessing and exploitive as slavery. Darwin supported it as one of the consequences of native inferiority. It would be people like Wallace, Charles Napier, Georg Gerland, John Stokes, Saxe Bannister, Langfield Ward, and many members of the Aborigines’ Protection Society who really fulfilled (in varying degrees) the position Gould admired. Darwin turned his back on what colonization and the idea of savage inferiority were doing to natives. Gould never addressed this. He brought his usual historical curiosity to a full stop.

There is evidence in The Descent of Man that Darwin considered signs of savage inferiority in their biological make-up, for example in their having a better sense of smell than white people, which put savages closer to the world of animals. His most serious biological assessment of them was that they had smaller brains, which would indicate lower intellects. Gould ignored this direct evidence of Darwin’s biological determinism.

Even if we assume that Gould was right about Darwin believing savages were improvable and therefore not trapped in biological inferiority, it turns out to be a distinction without a difference. In another essay in The Mismeasure of Man, Gould eloquently describes the effects of believing in biological determinism: “Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.” That is exactly what colonialism did, when it wasn’t murdering people. It stunted life, denied opportunities, and imposed this from without, while claiming the limitations were due to the internal nature of savages.

So does it really matter if Darwin was technically a biological determinist or not, if ultimately he gave his tacit or explicit assent to the colonial project? I can’t see that it does. It’s the same difference, no matter how you slice it or dice it. Paternalism is a misdirection that Gould gave himself so that he wouldn’t see the evidence of Darwin’s support for the colonial enterprise and its stunting of life. Gould also missed that Darwin linked natural selection to the colonial enterprise and in doing so, he made a biological theory (natural selection) supportive of colonialism.

Gould quotes a famous passage from Descent in which Darwin says that over the next few centuries, “the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world” (Darwin also states here that anthropomorphous apes will be exterminated too). Gould actually quotes a longer portion of it. He cites the passage to show that Darwin did believe certain human races were inferior and that Darwin ranked savages between apes and white people, which in Gould's view makes Darwin a paternalist. But Gould completely ignores the part about extermination! There is nothing more stunting of life than extermination. I fail to see how that can be called paternalism. And I find it mindboggling that Gould could completely miss that.

© 2015 Leon Zitzer