My email pal Sean once told me that historical Jesus studies needs a good kick in the arse. How true. The same can be said of Darwin studies and even the history of science, especially as it relates to evolution. When will we wake up and be truthful about what the evidence tells us?
Every time I come across a book or article on scientific racism in the 19th century, they always do the same thing. They make it seem like it was an aberration that was endorsed only by lesser figures. Charles Darwin is never mentioned or at best a glancing comment on his racism is offered. Same goes for Thomas Huxley. We have enforced this forgetfulness that scientific racism was a mainstream position. The top-notch scientists of the day promoted it. And every one of them would have sworn that their “racism” was objective and based soundly on the evidence.
How did the best scientists of the day go so wrong? How could they have so deceived themselves? These questions never get asked because we live in denial that it ever happened.
At the end of the American Civil War, Thomas Huxley gave a brief lecture entitled “Emancipation—Black and White” (the white part referred to women). He was glad that slavery was finally at an end in the west, but he emphasized that half the arguments brought in favor of abolition were wrong. In particular, the argument of equality between the races was dead wrong, as far as he was concerned: “no rational man, cognisant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man … The highest places in the hierarchy of civilisation will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins …”
Scientific racism went deep. It was not just a slight mistake. And science was not self-correcting about this. No profession is self-correcting. It is only when plenty of criticism from the outside makes inroads that science makes corrections.
We not only have ignored mainstream science’s devotion to racist ideas, but we have failed to take note of many of the anti-racists who were trying vainly to make a course correction. In 1864, just one year before Huxley’s lecture, Alfred Wallace made some interesting remarks on the subject. They were offered in a discussion following someone else’s paper delivered at a meeting of the London Anthropological Society. Unfortunately, we don’t have a record of Wallace in his own words, but rather a summary made by a third party. If we can trust the summary, Wallace made the following points:
He began by agreeing that the Negro is intellectually inferior to Europeans. “The only question to be determined,” he said, “was, how far that inferiority extends.” He then went on to challenge any ideas of inferiority by arguing, in effect, that these opinions are not based on any evidence. We have only seen Negroes in the most unfavorable conditions. How can one draw any fair conclusions from that? “We had never seen the negro under favourable circumstances. We had always seen him either as a slave or perfectly free without any stimulus to exertion … We had not yet seen the negro under the circumstances that would show him to the greatest advantage.” Wallace also made the point that if Negroes seemed to avoid work unless pressed by necessity, the same was true of all mankind (i.e., including white people), so that was no argument for inferiority.
A year before Huxley firmly stated his racist leanings, Wallace was already rebuking such thinking. We forget that, along with the fact that mainstream science ignored him and other anti-racists. Racism, in other words, went so deep that it forced the best scientists of the day to distort their view of the evidence and they would not pay attention even when their errors were pointed out. We ought to pay that more heed than we have—if only because it means that the dangers of mainstream science making mistakes is still with us.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer