Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Last month I put up my letter to the NY Times Sunday Book Review on the review of the Peter Cozzens book (see below).  Since then, I put up my own review of the book on Amazon. I gave it 2 stars mainly because Cozzens never directly confronts the issue of genocide and pretends that white invasion of Indian lands was a result of natural forces, not moral choices. I will post my review here next month, but this month, something else caught my eye about Darwin in another Times review.

Here is a good example of how popular writing about Darwin constantly mythologizes him. They give us a fictional Darwin who never existed. In a New York Times review of a book on the causes of World War I (Sunday Book Review, Dec. 11, 2016, p. 16), Margaret MacMillan, a professor at Oxford, writes, “Struggle, so Darwin could be twisted to say, was a natural part of human existence.” I suppose she means to imply that Darwin was more humane than that. She wants to distinguish Darwin from “social Darwinism and the racialist theories it spawned.” But you don’t have to twist Darwin to make him elevate struggle as the primary feature of all life or to make him espouse racist ideas of inferiority and superiority. He says these things himself.

Chapter III of The Origin of Species is entitled “Struggle for Existence”. The last words of Chapter VII are “let the strongest live and the weakest die.” Those words remained in place through all six editions (in the sixth edition, this was at the end of Chapter VIII). For the first ten pages or so of “Struggle for Existence”, Darwin is reminding the reader of the great destruction of life in nature, and using plants as an example, states that “the more vigorous … gradually kill the less vigorous.” No one has to make Darwin say any of this. He is quite clear about it and never tries to pretend that he sees life as anything less than a struggle to the death. “Fatal competition” as he says at the end of Chapter IV on natural selection. Extinction itself, which is the subject of one of the sections of Chapter IV, plays a large role in Darwin’s thinking. And lest we forget (how careless of me to leave this as the last example), the struggle for life was so important to Darwin that he put it in the subtitle of his book: The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

I think the reason writers have felt enabled to so shamefully misrepresent Darwin’s views is that Darwin (the fictional Darwin) has been encapsulated into one sentence. This is the last sentence of Origin, which in truncated form reads as follows: “There is grandeur in this view of life … from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” This is the romantic Darwin and it is the chief source of the idealistic vision of him. But the real Darwin also wrote a sentence immediately before that, in which he explained how this evolution comes about. It results “from the war of nature, from famine and death.” This gives us, says Darwin, “the production of the higher animals.” And in the sentence immediately before that, he references “a Struggle for Life” and “the Extinction of less-improved forms.” These sentences, the second and third from the end of Origin, express and capture what most of The Origin of Species is about. The last sentence is a romantic departure from the main thrust of Origin.

That last sentence, quoted probably more often than any other from Darwin, has been used to create the fictional Darwin. No one ever bothers to tell you how atypical it is for the historical Darwin. The real Darwin can be found in the sentences leading up to the uncharacteristic last one. That Darwin would go on to make clear twelve years later in The Descent of Man that he believed Indigenous peoples all over the world were among the forms of life that would soon be exterminated by Europeans and particularly by Anglo-Saxons. He regarded this extermination of human beings as a natural process of extinction of the less improved forms of life. This historically real Darwin has been erased by the majority of writers and scholars who continue to present to the public their romanticized, dream-like image of him. That image may be attractive to many people, but he never existed.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, November 26, 2016


Since it is highly unlikely that the NY Times will print the email letter I recently sent, concerning their review of Peter Cozzens's book (Nov. 13) , I might as well print it here. I will follow it with a comment about Darwin.

Here is my letter:

Douglas Brinkley’s review of Peter Cozzens’s “The Earth Is Weeping” is as misguided as apparently the book itself is. There is more than one way to commit genocide as Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word, would tell you; it varies in methods and intensity, he said. Military operations are only one way. Genocide was never official US policy, but there are unofficial ways to achieve the same result. You can harass and demoralize a people to death, which fits the American experience.

Since the earliest colonial days, there was constant talk of exterminating the Indians. In 1881 in her magnificent “A Century of Dishonor,” Helen Hunt wrote, “The word ‘extermination’ is as ready on the frontiersman’s tongue to-day as it was a hundred years ago.” A British pamphlet published in 1816 stated that it was certain that “American policy is directed towards the total extermination of the Indians.” Though this talk may never have been officially sanctioned, its advocates influenced other policies.

Indian tribes were not just placed on reservations once. They were moved again and again whenever American settlers coveted the new lands placed aside for the Indians. One tribe was moved 8 times in 16 years. They could hardly establish a good life before they were moved again. This kind of harassment does not encourage a long life. The government also controlled the legal system which was rigged against the Indians. It often failed to make payments for land supposedly purchased from Indians, keeping them in dire poverty. And the government frequently failed to punish people who murdered Indians. All this stress on natives can have a negative impact on the birth rate, which is one factor in genocide. You can choke a people to death by such means.

I discuss some of these issues in a chapter on genocide in my book “Darwin’s Racism” (which is a critique of Darwin, not evolution). I am devoting more attention to this in my current project which will be an eclectic history of humanitarianism. If Brinkley’s review is accurate, the Cozzens book is a biased, lopsided view of the evidence. It is my Jewish heritage that pushes me towards historical truth-telling. I am weeping.

That was the end of the letter.  About Darwin, I should say that in the 19th century, they knew all about stress on a tribe or group.  Darwin called it changed conditions of life and he knew it was bringing down the birth rate.  He expressed no regrets about this. Hardly anyone did, except for a few humanitarians.  European countries kept doing it, despite their knowledge that stress was contributing to extermination.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, October 29, 2016


You either have a deep feeling for the past and the importance of telling the truth about it, or you don’t. I can’t prove that telling the truth is a good thing to do. Plenty of people believe it is bad. Upholding tradition, even if it promotes a false picture of the past, is considered by many to be the right thing to do, the thing that society needs more than anything else.

I believe that traditions which falsify the past do more harm than good. Others believe that tradition is always good and exposing the wrong ones does more harm than good. I don’t know that either side can prove their case.

This is not about fighting for historical justice, which is a virtual impossibility. The past that happened cannot be undone (which is one reason why so many believe it should be left alone). There is no way to correct past injustices or punish the perpetrators, if it is something that happened a long time ago. The victims in history cannot be healed or made whole. It’s too late for any of that. The only correction that can be made is to put an end now to the untruthful telling of the past. That won’t change the past itself, but it will change our attitude towards it. If the only thing it accomplishes is to expose the arrogance of those who believe they have a right to tell lies, the truth about history is a good thing to pursue.

I can talk it up until I’m blue in the face, but if you do not already believe the past needs to be told the right way, none of my words will mean a thing. It’s a religious thing. Devotion to historical truth is like a religious belief. It is fundamental. It cannot be proven. You either believe in it or you don’t, but no amount of empirical evidence will convince anyone to change their beliefs about this.

Years ago when Homicide, the police detective series, was on TV, I remember an episode in which a detective who was Catholic explained that he investigates homicides because his religion teaches him to do that. The dead cannot speak for themselves, so he has a sacred duty to seek justice for them. Of course, in this case, concerning the recent dead, there is a good possibility that the culprit can be caught and punished. With long ago history, this isn’t possible. But the sacred feeling this detective had for the dead and the need he felt to find the truth about what happened still hold. You can carry these feelings for what happened long ago and far away just as much as for what happened yesterday or last year.

Take Judas, for example. I wonder what it’s like to be falsely accused of being a traitor for 2,000 years. Do the dead have feelings? No one has produced one piece of unambiguous, relevant evidence (relevant to the charge of being a traitor) to establish even a remote possibility that he was a traitor. All the evidence (except one piece) is ambiguous. What does it feel like to be condemned on practically nothing?

By the way, the Gospel authors knew exactly what they were doing in presenting all this ambiguous evidence. They weren’t trying to tell the story of a traitor. They left a trail of clues to what really happened. In the meantime, tradition changed what they recorded to make it over into a story of betrayal. I wonder not only how Judas feels about this, but how the Gospel authors feel to see their story so misused.

Forget the dead. What about the living? Does any living person feel a sense of shame that Judas stands convicted on the basis of nothing? I think that Catholic detective would be moved to take up his cause. But that detective is fiction. No one in real life cares a dollop. What happened long ago, how careful the Gospel writers were not to invent false evidence against Judas, but to record it all as ambiguous, how lies came to be told about what is in the Gospels, how scholars still distort what the Gospels say—it’s all a bad dream. We may never wake up—except in fiction.

Consider Charles Darwin. The fictional Darwin created by so many scholars is another bad dream we may never wake up from. In his published work and in letters, the real Darwin had no trouble proclaiming that the Anglo-Saxon race would triumph throughout the world and that all the lower races would be exterminated. In one letter, he added that when the lower races are all gone, humanity as a whole will rise. Yet Darwin is most often remembered as a great humanitarian. Something is wrong with our memory of the past, no?

In another letter, concerned about a friend’s trip to North Africa, he says he has no idea what the natives there are like, but he is sure they must be bloodthirsty. As a friend worried about his friend’s safety in a strange land, that is understandable. But that a scientist should say such a thing makes me shudder.

That’s one good reason to study the past: To shudder over what humanity has done to humanity. Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese film director, said that he did not want to give audiences merely something to digest, but something to make them shudder. The idea that scholars can put someone in prison for thousands of years, with no unambiguous evidence to justify it, or that they can make a racist seem like a humanitarian—it all makes me tremble. And if I’m alone in feeling that way, then so it goes.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


[My book Darwin’s Racism is now available at Amazon and all online booksellers.]

A few weeks ago, I heard a caller on a radio talk show say that he knew history as well as anyone else and then proceeded to argue for some very conservative solutions to certain current problems. I have no doubt that the caller knew history as well as anyone (he acknowledged that some bad things happened in the past). The question is how well does anyone really know what happened before we got here. I think the answer is not very well at all.

If I tossed out a dozen or so items of some significance, a handful of people would know some of these things and some would know other bits, but nobody would get them all. Everyone would be shocked by at least half the items on the list, though it would be a different half for each person.

How many people know that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States did not quite abolish all slavery as we are usually told? It contained an important exception: “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” It was used in the years following the Civil War, in the South, especially in Texas, to re-enslave many black men by arresting and convicting them on some charge and then putting them to work without pay.

Did you know that the Declaration of Independence contains an implied approval of greed for Indian land? One of the complaints made against the King of England in that document is that the King has imposed restrictions on “the conditions of new appropriations of lands.” What Jefferson may have had primarily in mind was the Proclamation of 1763. White settlers were supposed to stay east of a certain line and stop encroaching on Indian land. Americans did not like that. The Declaration of Independence was, in this one small way, also a declaration to steal all the Indian land, if they could not get Indians to legitimately sell it.

How many people know that in the early 19th century, free blacks, with only some occasional exceptions, were not allowed to participate in patriotic observances such as the July 4 celebration? They could observe white people celebrating, but blacks were not allowed to join in. This was primarily in the New England states, which had gradually abolished slavery many decades before the Civil War. Not only did the American Revolution for independence, liberty, and rights pass African-Americans by (even when freed, they were not allowed civil rights), but so did the celebrations of the Revolution and other holidays, as if to reinforce the idea that liberty would not apply to them, not even to free blacks. Blacks of course held their own annual parade to honor the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Segregation, even in holiday observances, goes way back in our history.

Then there’s the history of riots in America. Since the civil rights era in the 1960s, we live with the impression that a riot means blacks rioting against the white establishment. That’s the image we all have. But for the entire history of this country before then, riots were always by whites out to destroy black neighborhoods. Black prosperity could not be tolerated. There were many such riots and they continued well into the 20th century.

That’s just a few examples of what we almost never think about as part of our historical heritage and the same can be done for Charles Darwin. Most people, including scholars, know much less than they pretend to know. Everyone praises Darwin for being opposed to slavery, but hardly anyone tells you how limited his opposition was. He was opposed to legalized slavery, but as far as I know, he expressed no concerns about illegal slavery or forced labor. He never showed any sympathy with the complaint that colonialism was the equivalent of slavery, some even arguing that it was worse.

I recently saw a blog which claimed that Darwin inherited his grandfather Josiah Wedgwood’s sentiment that all men are brothers (as inscribed on the Wedgwood medallion, depicting a slave in chains pleading “Am I Not a Man and a Brother”). That’s not accurate. Darwin actually questioned that view in an early Notebook entry in which he acknowledged that civilized men and Christians may believe all men are brothers, but Darwin had to add his own comment, “yet differences carried a long way.” He definitely did not believe that all men are brothers.

Darwin utilized the theory of evolution to emphasize what he believed were the widening gaps between the races of men. The differences loomed large for him. He believed evolution produced drastic, hierarchical differentiation. People forget too the historical context. In the 19th century, it was entirely possible to be an abolitionist and at the same time an extreme racist. Thomas Huxley, Joseph Hooker, and Anthony Trollope are just three examples, in addition to Darwin. Hundreds more could be listed.

With history, we are better at forgetting and erasing than we are at remembering. It never seems to change. The study of history should be a continual searching for the things we have missed. But most scholars have stopped doing that. We are not even curious anymore. We would rather just keep repeating what we think we know. Our presumed knowledge gets in the way of seeing. Ideology wins over the facts and we don’t see the great danger in that.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Monday, August 29, 2016


We all know that memory is selective. That is not news for most of us. But it is shocking to realize just how selective it can be. Some of the things we (as a culture and as individuals) suppress are so big, it is amazing that we let ourselves get away with it.

In New England, they have long had a proud tradition of remembering that they were the first in the nation to abolish slavery. Over a century before the Civil War ended slavery in the South, Connecticut and Rhode Island passed gradual emancipation plans. In Massachusetts, it is more of a mystery as to how dismantling slavery came about—most likely it was a combination of public opinion, legal cases, and a clause in the Massachusetts constitution guaranteeing freedom and equality for all—but here too slavery was considered banned.

So strong was the impression of New England’s noble attitude that, for a long time, many New Englanders believed either that slavery had never existed there or that it was very mild. What they had a harder time remembering was that freed slaves were not treated as equal citizens. But that’s not the part that shocks me. (Though it should. One contemporary in 1796 acknowledged at one and the same time that denying civil rights was such a bad thing to do that it could be called civil slavery and then insisted they had a right to do it because every society can decide who gets to participate in civil rights and who doesn’t.)

New England remembered itself as the birthplace of American patriotism and freedom. They celebrated the heroes of the Revolution. But they chose not to remember that some of these heroes were black men who served in the Revolutionary army. They erased black soldiers from history. In one case I read about long ago, they literally erased one such man. If I recall, there was a famous painting made in the 1790s which depicted American patriots in battle. One of them was black. When the painting was reproduced in textbooks for children, the black soldier was removed.

Why do that? Why not remember that black and white soldiers fought alongside each other? And how could they champion emancipation of slaves and then deliberately fail to remember the many black men fighting in the same cause they all participated in? One answer is that emancipation served more to promote the self-image of white people as true believers in freedom than to help the freed slaves who would never be granted full civil rights. And the removal of black people from the history of the Revolution had something to do with the same racism that denied civil rights.

Whatever your answer is, this stands as a grand example of the selectivity of historical memory.

Everywhere you look, you can find more examples of incredibly shocking deletions. In The Descent of Man, Darwin expressed his firm belief in the moral and intellectual inferiority of savages. He was convinced that savages would never help a stranger, whereas Europeans would, (“humanity is an unknown virtue” in savages, he would write) and gave his full assent to a Spanish maxim “Never, never trust an Indian.”

Darwin had completely forgotten that, in his younger days, in the Diary he kept while on board the Beagle, he had given examples of South American Indians helping strangers, often shipwrecked European sailors. Of the Patagonian Indians, he noted “their usual disinterested noble hospitality.” (In later published editions of his journal, the word ‘noble’ was dropped.) None of this made it into Descent. It is one good sign of how hardened Darwin’s racism became in his later years. He chose not to remember some of the good qualities in native peoples that he himself had some acquaintance with.

Darwin erased hospitable savages from the world just as surely as those textbooks erased a black man from a painting, and for the same reason: So he could create his own painting which bore no resemblance to the real world. This was selective memory in the service of bad anthropology.

I could go on and on with other examples, like the failure of scientists today to remember that, fifteen years before The Origin of Species, Robert Chambers assembled much of the same evidence for evolution (the common descent of species) that Darwin would. He was in fact the first to prove that evolution was a more probable theory than special creation. But scientists and scholars have chosen to erase this from historical memory. It is that kind of selectivity that takes my breath away. These are the kinds of cases that make one think deep unconscious forces are at work.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Friday, July 29, 2016


Finally it is here and available at all online book vendors. The title is: Darwin’s Racism: The Definitive Case, Along with a Close Look at Some of the Forgotten, Genuine Humanitarians of That Time. It is easy enough to find. Just search for the words, Darwin racism, and my book is the first or one of the first books that comes up.

I don’t think I need to say anything else for the moment. At sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, you can read a description of the book or see the Table of Contents. I have also repeated these things in some of the recent posts below. Just scroll down a bit to May for the Contents.

And when I say the definitive case in the subtitle, it really is.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, June 25, 2016


I don’t think one can find any two worldviews that are further apart than the worldviews of Charles Darwin and John Locke. One could even say they are downright opposed. One championed a hierarchy of beings, with favor given to the stronger and more dominant, and the other believed in equality of rights with no distinction between the more powerful and the weaker.

This might be an unfair comparison to make if Darwin had been strictly a biologist, while Locke was engaged in political philosophy. But Darwin did not stick to flora and fauna. He was happy to apply natural selection to human societies. He may not have always gone as far as other Social Darwinists, but he did choose to make pronouncements about the human situation. He thought about what was good and bad for human society and, in the answers he gave, he was very different from Locke.

Locke denied that the stronger over the weaker was a natural law. He was not saying that this never happens. He was a realist. The weak do get screwed and often. But he held that it was a violation of natural right. Whatever is extorted by force, he said, is “without Right … [and] bind[s] not at all.” For him, it was a fundamental law of nature that the small and weak never lose their basic rights. Disputes should be resolved by negotiation or mutual consent, not by force. There is nothing like negotiation in Darwin’s system of thought.

There were many humanitarians (in Darwin’s time and earlier) who thought like Locke. Saxe Bannister, Attorney General for New South Wales in the mid-1820s, said that “rights are never forgotten.” Respecting the rights of the smaller nations and indigenous peoples was a major theme for humanitarians. One cannot say the same for Darwin.

About 70 years after Locke, Emer de Vattel wrote a highly respected treatise on international law. He put it as memorably as anyone ever has: “A dwarf is as much a man as a giant; a small republic is no less a sovereign state than the most powerful kingdom.” There is “a perfect equality of rights between nations.” Thus, every nation has a right to resist by force if another nation endangers the safety and welfare of its own society. The powerful do not have more rights in this regard, and the weak do not have fewer rights. Locke would agree.

This is very different from Darwin’s world and, I would say, more realistic. Darwin was a strict imperialist. He believed a stronger nation has a right to go around imposing itself on weaker nations. “Man is not an intruder,” he wrote in one of his Notebooks. Man, particularly European man, has a right to invade and intrude and bring its own jurisdiction along with its intrusion. His vision was of mankind in a kind of eternal state of warfare, until a stalemate of power was achieved.

But the humanitarians saw it differently. Realistically, man is an intruder and therefore has to learn to be a negotiator. That’s what human beings do. Sometimes they make war, but more often, they bargain and reach peaceful agreements. They do this based on an understanding that Locke, among others, promoted. We all have rights and have to learn to get along. The weak have to be protected to make sure they never lose the same rights they share with the more powerful.

One could say the questions are: What is the essence of being human or being a human cultural group, and what rights go along with this essence? For Locke, Vattel, and many others, size did not matter. For Darwin, it very much did.

In an imperialist age, it was the Darwinian vision that proved the more appealing. But Locke’s thoughts never went away. They just snuck underground.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


Darwin's Racism: The Definitive Case, Along with a Close Look at Some of the Forgotten, Genuine Humanitarians of That Time should be available on book sites, like Amazon, in the next 4 to 6 weeks.

In the meantime, I thought I would list the chapter titles:

1  Evolutionary Theory is Safe

2 Savages: The Polished and the Melancholy

3 Racism: By Any Other Name

4 Slavery, Emancipation, and Continuing Racism

5 Evidence, Evidence, Evidence

6 Man in The Origin of Species

7 Some Lessons from Mathus

8 Something Happened Before Darwin Arrived

9 What a Difference a Worldview Makes

10 Euphemisms Be Damned

11 Genocide By Any Other Name

12 Restoring Messiness to History

It's a big book.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


As I am busy finishing proofreading and indexing my book, I won't post anything this month.  The title of the book is Darwin's Racism: The Definitive Case, Along With a Close Look at Some of the Forgotten, Genuine Humanitarians of That Time.  I hope it will be available by June.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


[Part 1 is the previous post, the one for February 2016. I usually post once a month at the end of the month. I am posting earlier this time, so it will follow soon after Part 1.]

Sometimes the news throws up reports on the most diverse subjects, which can lead us to make the oddest connections. Along with a debate about reparations, recent news items have told us about the detection of gravitational waves, confirming part of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. It has produced a lot of excitement. For one thing, there is a hope that new technological devices will ensue. Whenever we discover anything in the west, the first thing scientists start thinking about is how this will give us more domination and control over nature.

But there is more. In response to one person’s query as to what good is this, one scientist, or perhaps it was a journalist who writes on science, responded that one might as well ask what good is Beethoven or Bach. There is a beauty to scientific theories about the universe that is worth pursuing for its own sake. Yes, there is. I agree. But I wonder why we never say that about humanitarian ideas.

There is an incredible beauty in the idea that an attack on humanity anywhere is an attack on humanity everywhere. But how many people really believe that? We consider it deeply problematic, a very big pain in the ass, to defend human rights everywhere. There is the danger, the economic costs, diplomatic considerations. Too much of an emphasis on human rights will interfere with material progress which always comes first. Human rights are something that can be put on the backburner. Humanitarian ideals are nothing like Beethoven or Bach. Great music doesn’t make us feel guilty the way our failures in humanitarianism do. We don’t celebrate humanitarians of the past the way we celebrate Bach or Einstein. We would rather forget.

(In what follows, all emphases in quotations from old authors are original to these authors.)

In the late 17th century, John Locke wrote that when an “Aggressor … unjustly invades another Man’s Right, [he] cannever come to have a Right over the Conquered …” 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.

(How Locke was rewritten by scholars to make him into a supporter of colonialism and the dispossession of native peoples is too long a story to go into here. For the moment, it is enough to say that their chief method has been to erase all that he said in defense of the native rights of all peoples.)

Locke went further. He argued that even in a just war, when a nation has all the justice on its side you can imagine, such justice does not give the conqueror the right to take away all the land from the conquered nation. The vanquished, especially the women and children, have a right to live and a right to inherit their fathers’ possessions. “But the Conquered, or their Children, have no Court, no Arbitrator on Earth to appeal to. Then they may appeal [to heaven] … and repeat their Appeal, till they recovered the native Right of their Ancestors … If it be objected, this would cause endless trouble; I answer, No more than Justice does, where she lies open to all that appeal to her.” For Locke, this is absolutely true in an unjust war, but even just wars cannot undo the right to inherit and have enough land for survival.

Saxe Bannister, Attorney General in New South Wales in the mid-1820s and later active in the Aborigines’ Protection Society, put it most succinctly: “rights are never forgotten.” There is the right to reparations in a nutshell. It is as beautiful a humanitarian insight as the idea that an attack on humanity anywhere is an attack on humanity everywhere.

Granville Sharp was one of the earliest British abolitionists. He defended many a slave in England in the late 18th century and was finally successful in getting a judge to decide that slavery in England was illegal (the exact interpretation of the judge’s decision was in dispute, but he was popularly understood to have banned slavery on English home soil). Sharp was deeply aware that the rights of Englishmen were entwined with rights for all humans: “the spirit and equity,” for example, of trial by jury (denied to slaves) would be “entirely lost, if we partially confine that justice to ourselves alone, when we have it in our power to extend it to others” (this point was framed in a rhetorical question). “The natural right of all mankind must principally justify our insisting upon this necessary privilege in favour of ourselves in particular … we certainly undermine the equitable force and reason of those laws, by which we ourselves are protected …” if we do not extend them to all men.

It was this concern for human rights that carried over to the movement to help Aborigines who were losing their land without compensation. Saxe Bannister pointed out that the Parliamentary leaders pushing for the emancipation of slaves had always had colonial Aborigines, or free coloreds, in their minds as well. Sharp himself had made a connection between the causes of slaves and Aborigines. To make Aborigines out to be savages was, like enslavement, to divest them of their humanity, an expression used by Sharp. Sharp had argued that slavery turned human beings into property and that this was a divestment of their humanity. He insisted that no human being can ever be divested of his fundamental human nature and the rights that go with it.

The most important thing to remember about Sharp’s brand of humanitarianism is that he did not just want to free the slaves—he wanted to free them for the right reasons and that included the idea of universal human rights. His ideas, like those of Bannister and Locke, were as beautiful as anything in physics and mathematics.

Twice Sharp tells us that slavery is “destructive of the human species.” (Darwin would say almost the exact opposite when it came to exterminating Aborigines; he believed their disappearance would improve the human race; see below.) Sharp’s statement seems to be based on his belief that the oppression of one part of society, if unchecked, will spread to other parts, particularly to the common people. He notes that the free Negroes, Mulattoes, and Indians in the colonies suffer oppressive measures as a result of the way slaves are treated. There is implied in this a holistic view of human society. The whole binds all the parts together so that injustice cannot be confined to one part; whatever wrongs are done to one will spread to other parts of the whole. Sharp saw connections where racists and slaveholders saw disconnections.

Darwin was more apt to see disconnections. He affirmed connections between humans in the ancient past, but he also believed evolution had created such diversity of character that the end result in our time was that the human races were markedly different in moral and intellectual nature. To one correspondent, Darwin wrote, “It is very true what you say about the higher races of men, when high enough, replacing & clearing off the lower races. In 500 years how the Anglo-saxon race will have spread & exterminated whole nations; & in consequence how much the Human race, viewed as a unit, will have risen in rank.” Rank was what counted for Darwin, which is why he depicted lower races as pulling down the human race as a whole. Getting rid of certain human races, not reparations, was what Darwin envisioned for the future.

Sharp saw it differently. Injustice is what pulled humanity down and giving justice to a despised group could only pull humanity up. As Locke had said, there is no time limit on calling for injustice to be rectified. All human beings are entitled to rights (which never go away, as Bannister had emphasized), so much so that, in Sharp’s view, the denial of rights to any one group would have devastating consequences on all other human beings. He was a holistic thinker. Would he have approved of reparations? I think so. He would have understood that lifting up a people as a counter-measure to the injustices they had suffered would have beneficial results for everyone else. Reparations fit his general way of thinking.

There is a beauty in all this that we would do well to remember. Rights are never forgotten and can never be abandoned. As long as there are descendants to remember these things. That is as beautiful as a gravitational wave, isn’t it? To the ones I have mentioned here, many other forgotten names could be added, like Charles Napier, J. Langfield Ward, and Georg Gerland. Napier had argued how destructive an obsession with national wealth is and Gerland asked us to remember that indigenous people had not rejected civilization, rather civilization had rejected the indigenous.

They all asked us to remember that the line between civilized and savage runs through every human society, and should never be used as a marker to distinguish between cultures. Every society has the capacity to sink back into savagery, as Gerland said, and the so-called savage cultures give us high examples of humanity.

Unfortunately, we have chosen not to remember the humanitarians who taught us these lessons. We do not honor their names the way we honor the names of scientists who enhanced the power of western civilization. We’ve brushed them aside. We’ve dis-remembered them. We don’t value what they stood for. Reparations here would mean remembering what they thought was important and remembering that we have rejected their offerings. It’s that double memory that twists us up inside. We don’t know how to face what our neglect has done to them.

Whatever the merit and benefits of financial reparations, the ultimate reparations are memories. The reparations of remembering history accurately is what we need more than anything else. Whether the future holds promise or gives us an abyss depends on how we remember the past. It is the most dangerous kind of reparation because part of this is remembering how bad we have been at the task of memorializing humanitarians who tried so hard to give us something better. We have erased them from history. If we have any heart at all, we should do our utmost to reverse that.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Sunday, February 21, 2016


[Part 2 will come next month, March 2016.]

There has been a lot of talk recently about reparations for slavery. It is not of course the first time this has been brought up. I recall sometime in the mid-1980s there was a newspaper article about African-American Congressmen raising the issue of reparations. I was on a subway train seated behind two black women, one of whom had the paper opened to that article. She asked the other what she thought about this. Her friend replied, “I don’t know nothing about no slavery. My family was never slaves. We were always free. I got nothing to do with that.” She seemed quite indignant that anyone would associate her or her family with that demoralizing institution. As I recall, that was the end of their conversation on that.

The original hope for reparations was the forty acres and a mule that every freed slave was supposed to get. That never got done. In general, I don’t think there is such a thing as historical justice. The only true justice would be to have prevented the original injustice from happening or to have made a correction very soon after it happened. Once you pass a certain point, justice is a fantasy. But a semblance of it might be worth going after, if only as an acknowledgment that past injustices continue to reverberate into the future.

We forget that British colonies went through this with Aborigines (and, I believe, are still going through it in places like Australia, though I don’t know enough about current proceedings there). Humanitarians had pointed out that colonial wealth was built on stealing land from the original proprietors. Some argued that it would be only right if, say, ten percent of this wealth went back to the natives. That idea never picked up steam. The greed that demanded we take everything from Aborigines was too stingy to allow even a small percent to go back to the first inhabitants.

In testimony before the House of Commons Select Committee on Aborigines in the mid-1830s, one minister thought the best compensation we could offer would be to bring them Christianity and the benefits of western civilization. This would be a fair recompense for the land we took. One member of the Committee pointed out that this was the only compensation we could afford.

Meanwhile, some money was set aside to help new immigrants settle in Australia, but almost nothing went to help the displaced natives. They were very stingy about how they allocated funds. The problem with asking for reparations (which I fully agree with, despite its problems) is that we are asking this of a society that has never acknowledged the extreme greed that led to slavery and colonization in the first place. The dominant culture from the beginning has wanted it all and has been unwilling to share or give up even a small piece of the wealth to be had.

Yet we ask this culture to be more sharing now. What are the chances of success as long as our society refuses to acknowledge how deep are the tentacles of greediness in all that we do?

I don’t think that most 19th century abolitionists ever thought about reparations. They conceived that once slavery was abolished, freedom was the only reparation necessary and white people could wash their hands of it, as Thomas Huxley once put it (which I will get to in a bit).

I don’t see any signs that Charles Darwin thought about a continuing need to address injustice. One slight exception is from his Beagle Diary where he commented, “The Chilean authorities are now performing an act of justice by making retribution to these poor Indians, by giving to each Cacique twelve quadras of land …” This is not at all typical of Darwin’s sentiments, not to mention that it seems almost perverse that he would pick out one case of some justice being attempted, while ignoring the innumerable instances of dispossessing natives without any attempt at compensation.

More typical of Darwin are the following comments from his Diary. Just a couple of months after the above remark, Darwin notes how poor one group of Indians is and writes, “I really think a boats crew with the Spanish flag might take the island of Chiloe.” He can make this observation despite the notorious reputation the Spanish empire had. In the same month, he indifferently observes that many islands in South America are unpopulated: “I should suppose the tribe has become extinct; one step to the final extermination of the Indian race in S. America.”

Then there is this: In Argentina, as General Rosas led a campaign of genocidal slaughter, Darwin opines, “If this warfare is successful, that is if all the Indians are butchered, a grand extent of country will be gained for the production of cattle: & the vallies [of various rivers] will be most productive in corn.” A month earlier, he had written, “The war of extermination, although carried on with the most shocking barbarity, will certainly produce great benefits.” Sad to say, it is thoughts like these which Darwin expresses most often.

These remarks were eliminated from the published version of his Diary. But in the published Journal, he made the same point in a more sophisticated way. On the removal of all the Tasmanian Aborigines from their land, Darwin said, “Van Diemen’s Land enjoys the great advantage of being free from a native population.” He called it a “most cruel step” but “quite unavoidable.”

One advantage of complete extermination is that the invaders/colonizers will never have to think about paying reparations to the descendants because there won’t be any descendants. Darwin and many of his contemporaries believed that extermination of indigenous peoples was inevitable. There were many reasons for believing in this inevitability, which I discuss in my book (perhaps available in a few months). One was just this—that it would obviate the need, even the very question of, reparations. I cannot be sure which person believed in which reasons, since there was such a complex at work here, and so in Darwin’s case, I don’t know all his reasons for believing in the inevitable doom facing Aborigines everywhere, but it is possible that getting rid of any claim for reparations was one of them.

The humanitarians of the age insisted on some reparations. Even more, they were capable of arguing that anyone who believed in the inevitable extermination of any human population was himself a barbarian. In essence, this supposed law of inevitability was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or as Herman Merivale, a professor at Oxford, put it in 1841 or 1842, this was an imaginary law; he identified Darwin as one of those who supported this imaginary law. Another Englishman called the extermination of Aborigines a national crime, the perpetrators of which should be punished.

When I started this post, I had no idea of how long it was going to be. I am going to leave the beauty part of reparations for next month’s post. I will bring up John Locke, Saxe Bannister, and Granville Sharp for the sublimity of their thoughts that rights are never forgotten.

Since I mentioned Huxley above, I should conclude this post by presenting his thoughts on the matter of what, if anything, was due ex-slaves. His answer was basically nothing. Like Darwin and their friend Joseph Hooker, Huxley was an abolitionist. But all three held strong racist beliefs.

At the end of the American Civil War, Huxley was glad that slavery had finally been defeated in the west. He was not hopeful about the future for former slaves. Their own inferiority would keep them down. In a lecture, he stated that there were “good grounds for repudiating half the arguments which have been employed by the winning side,” that is, by those fighting to end slavery. What bothered him most was the argument of equality between the races: “no rational man, cognisant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man.” Whatever happens to the Negro from here on in, “all responsibility for the result will henceforward lie between nature and him. The white man may wash his hands of it, and the Caucasian conscience be void of reproach forever more.” This was “the real justification for the abolition policy”—that is, to give us a clean conscience.

Obviously, there is no room here for anything like reparations. A philosophy that worked against any idea of reparations was built into the system of emancipation from its inception. There must have been some guilt over what slavery had accomplished, otherwise emphasizing a clean conscience would not have been voiced. This clean conscience enabled them to pretend that slavery and colonization had not created disadvantages for ex-slaves and ex-colonial subjects. We are still pretending.

Would Darwin have agreed with Huxley? Most likely, yes, but I have no specific evidence to prove that. He opposed slavery primarily, perhaps exclusively, for one reason—for its enormous cruelties, including the breaking up of slave families. It was not economic injustice that concerned him or even social inequality. He always believed that social inequality was a good thing. He was opposed to trade unions and cooperative societies because they seemed to him to work against the principle of competition; they tried to make everyone too equal. In New Zealand, he noted with some disappointment that slaves and their owners did not always observe the formalities of class distinctions. A slave should not know cruelty, but he should know his social place. I doubt that Darwin would have been concerned with reparations for former slaves, most of whom were now part of the class of poor people, a group that did not concern Darwin very much.

© 2106 Leon Zitzer

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


I am in the final stages of preparing Darwin’s Racism: The Definitive Case, Along with a Close Look at Some of the Forgotten, Genuine Humanitarians of That Time for publication. Hopefully, it will be available in a couple of months.

In the meantime, immediately below is the description of the book that will appear on websites and the back of the book:

Throughout the 19th century in the British Empire, parallel developments in science and the law were squeezing Aborigines everywhere into nonexistence. Charles Darwin took part in this. Again and again, he expressed his approval of the extermination of the native “lower races.” The more interesting part of the story is that there were plenty of voices, albeit a minority and mostly forgotten now, who objected on humanitarian grounds (and sometimes scientific grounds as well). Europeans, they said, were becoming polished savages and dehumanizing the Other. Darwin was very aware of this criticism and cared not one whit. As he said in a letter to Charles Lyell, “I … care not much whether we are looked at as mere savages in a remotely distant future.” But he well knew it was not a remote future. He had read several writers who accused Europeans of being the real savages. For a brief moment in his youth in his Diary, he himself dabbled in such criticism, even though he already believed in the inferiority of indigenous peoples. That belief grew firmer as he matured. Darwin did not dispute humanitarians so much as he ignored them. It’s a sad story. But oh those humanitarians, how they inspire.

That is the description. There are three components to the book: 1) presenting all the evidence to establish that racism was a systemic part of Darwin’s anthropology; this includes evidence from his published writings, Notebooks, and correspondence; 2) looking in detail at some of his contemporaries who strongly objected to the racism of their culture and to the genocidal policies practiced in the colonies; and 3) remembering the evolutionists who preceded Darwin and who were more holistic and humane than he was; they would have taken evolutionary theory in a different direction, but we have consigned them to oblivion.

This book is about rescuing voices from the past. If one line sums it up, perhaps it would be a line from the end of the film A Thousand Acres. One of the sisters, dying in the hospital, says that her single accomplishment in life was this: I saw and I did not flinch from telling.

© Leon Zitzer 2016