From the very first sentence of the Introduction to The Origin of Species, Darwin presents his journey around the world on the Beagle as a kind of fact finding mission, the fruits of which he assembled when he got back home and, after careful study, he came up with the theory of evolution. In later letters, he presented it that way too. It has become part of the myth about Darwin. He knew better. That’s not how science works.
In conversations and in letters, when discussing the nature of science in general, Darwin offered a more accurate version of scientific procedure. He would tell people that you start with theories and study the evidence through the lens of a particular theory. In at least one letter, he said that he did not think one could be a good observer unless one looked at the evidence with a theory in mind. He told Anton Dohr, a German zoologist, that he always begins with a priori solutions and he applies these to the facts until he finds one that explains all the evidence.
That is a more truthful exposition of what happened on his Beagle voyage. He brought the theory of evolution with him, as espoused by his grandfather Erasmus Darwin and French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. He was already given this theory and then compared how much sense this theory made of the facts to how well the theory of special creation accounted for the same evidence. It was no contest, as some previous scientists had also realized.
There is another way to do science. It is reported in The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, an American geologist. He was observing another scientist studying molluscs and becoming frustrated by the transitional forms he was finding. Molluscs happened to be Lamarck’s area of expertise and were one of the things that led him to evolution. But this scientist threw one of these transitional molluscs on the floor, stomped on it with his heel, and said, “That’s the proper way to serve a damned transitional form.” Just get rid of the evidence you don’t like. If it does not fit the theory you favor, it must go.
Unfortunately, this latter method is the one so many writers and scholars use when studying the question of whether or not Darwin brought racism into his work. Of course he did. I have published two books on this. One is an 800 page tome, Darwin’s Racism: The Definitive Case, and the other is a mere 200 pages, A Short but Full Book on Darwin’s Racism (both available at all online vendors). The evidence is overwhelming. Darwin was committed to seeing life as a hierarchy of groups subordinate to groups, a phrase that occurs throughout Origin, and insisted that in evolution, the dominant groups would become ever more dominant. He also insisted that the more intellectual or civilized races would gradually exterminate the lower races and that when the lower races are all gone, humanity as a whole will rise in rank.
There is much more but even a brief glance at Darwin’s work makes the racism obvious. The next to last paragraph of The Descent of Man reveals his disgust with savages, and Chapter 7, “On the Races of Man”, in the same book, presents his racism in full bloom. His words are imperishable. No amount of stomping or spinning can get rid of them. It is long past time to pay attention and reject scientific racism, even when, or especially when, an icon commits it.
© 2017 Leon Zitzer