A while back, I believe I mentioned that it is quite common for books and articles about 19th century scientific racism to be published which never mention Darwin as an example or mention him briefly in a sentence or two and then pass over him. The latest case of this is Siep Stuurman’s The Invention of Humanity: Equality and Cultural Difference in World History (2017). It is a general review of humanitarian thinking from ancient times to the present, covering many different civilizations, not just western thought. I recommend it, if only for the reason that every reader will encounter here very interesting writers from many different countries, many of whom you never heard of. We can all learn a lot from this book.
But the silence about Darwin is stunning. Stuurman devotes one chapter to 19th century scientific racism in Europe and America. Darwin does not appear, not even once, not even in a brief aside. Yet he mentions others who espoused the very same ideas as Darwin. He quotes Robert Knox (whom Stephen Gould also dealt with in The Mismeasure of Man), “Already in a few years, we have cleared Van Diemen’s Land of every human aboriginal; Australia, of course, will follow, and New Zealand next.” Stuurman calls this “Knox’s genocidal vision.” Darwin said the same in more polished language in his published journal: “All the aborigines have been removed … so that Van Diemen’s Land enjoys the great advantage of being free from a native population.”
Stuurman also says, “According to Knox, the ‘dark races’ would lose the struggle for world supremacy and were destined for extinction.” Darwin embraced the same exact thought many times in his letters and at least once publicly in The Descent of Man: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” Yet Darwin gets the silent treatment by Stuurman and so many other scholars.
Stuurman describes a social Darwinist theory of history as “permitting, and at times demanding, the extermination of peoples deemed ‘inferior’ …” But this kind of thinking comes directly from Darwin, which Stuurman neglects to mention. In one of his letters, Darwin said “… the Human race, viewed as a unit, will have risen in rank” when all the lower races have been exterminated. Almost every racist thought discussed by Stuurman can be found in Darwin.
So what does the scholarly world accomplish when they write (or rather, fail to write) about Darwin this way? How can one leave out the major biological scientist of the 19th century from a discussion of scientific racism? Scholars have created a safe haven for racism in Darwin’s writings. Darwin gets away with it because academia is committed to letting him get away with it. And because Darwin was a relatively polite racist, scholars have given permission to racism to forge ahead as long as it expresses itself in subtle ways that at least do not appear offensive at first glance. Be nice about it and academia will allow you to be as racist as you want to be. This is a very dangerous game scholars are playing. As long as the full truth about scientific racism is not investigated, it will always return, and by leaving Darwin out of it, we are covering up that full truth.
© 2017 Leon Zitzer