Racism, Eugenics, and Darwin

THIS is another in a series of posts that began with Debating Creationists: The Big Lie. That dealt with some general myths about the theory of evolution, and it was followed with some essays dealing with specific myths, including: Hitler and Darwin, and Marx, Stalin, and Darwin, and Atheism, Science, and Darwin and Morality, Evolution, and Darwin.

Among the attacks on evolution are the endlessly-repeated allegations that Darwin’s theory promotes racism, and he was somehow responsible for the eugenics movement. This is ironic, particularly regarding racism, given the close association that anti-evolutionists have traditionally had with racism — especially in the US. William Jennings Bryan is a good example. See: William Jennings Bryan and Racism.

Such attacks on Darwin often rely on the title of his best-known book: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. That title is often the only thing by Darwin the creationists ever read, and they mindlessly misinterpret it.

In the on-line text of that book, we see that Darwin, like his contemporaries, uses the terms “race,” “sub-species,” “variety,” and similar expressions interchangeably in connection with a great number of animals (dogs, horses, etc.) and also plants (flowers, cabbages, etc.), sometimes intermixing them in the same context. In chapter one, for example:

When we look to the hereditary varieties or races of our domestic animals and plants, and compare them with species closely allied together, we generally perceive in each domestic race, as already remarked, less uniformity of character than in true species.

And in his later work, The Descent of Man, Chapter 7 — On the Races of Man, he explains why such terms aren’t very useful:

The question whether mankind consists of one or several species has of late years been much discussed by anthropologists … . But it is a hopeless endeavour to decide this point, until some definition of the term “species” is generally accepted; and the definition must not include an indeterminate element such as an act of creation. We might as well attempt without any definition to decide whether a certain number of houses should be called a village, town, or city.

In any event, in Darwin’s book with the word “race” in the title, he doesn’t even talk about the evolution of humans, so the charge of racism — based solely on that title — is grotesquely misinformed.

As for Darwin’s actually being racist, in The Descent of Man, Chapter 21 – General Summary and Conclusion, he says:

Through the means just specified, aided perhaps by others as yet undiscovered, man has been raised to his present state. But since he attained to the rank of manhood, he has diverged into distinct races, or as they may be more fitly called, sub-species. Some of these, such as the Negro and European, are so distinct that, if specimens had been brought to a naturalist without any further information, they would undoubtedly have been considered by him as good and true species. Nevertheless all the races agree in so many unimportant details of structure and in so many mental peculiarities that these can be accounted for only by inheritance from a common progenitor; and a progenitor thus characterised would probably deserve to rank as man.

Get that? All human races (or so-called sub-species) are one species — man. This was a radical position at the time. He also says:

The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely, that man is descended from some lowly organised form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians. The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind — such were our ancestors. … He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins.

Clearly, by embracing the idea of barbarians and savages as his ancestors, Darwin has none of the concerns that seem to bedevil creationists, who want no biological connection with … them.

We’ve also discussed other aspects of the Darwin-racism charges, including the false claims that Darwin is responsible for advocating eugenics and selective breeding of humans. Those ideas are at least as old as Athens and Sparta, as we point out in this article, so you can read that for some additional insights. Unless Darwin had a time machine which enabled him to instruct the Spartans about destroying defective infants, and to encourage Plato to write about a selective breeding program for the republic, he’s innocent of the charges so thoughtlessly made by creationists.

But we should spend a bit more time on the eugenics allegation. There are so many articles on that at the blog of the neo-theocrats at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (a/k/a the Discoveroids) that it’s difficult to select just one. But for a typical example, see: this, by Bruce Chapman.

What is the source of these accusations? Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, was a pioneer in the modern eugenics movement, and his family relationship to Charles Darwin is sufficient (in the minds of creationists) to lay all the blame for this movement on Darwin. However, in that same chapter 21 of The Descent of Man from which we quoted earlier, Darwin says:

Man scans with scrupulous care the character and pedigree of his horses, cattle, and dogs before he matches them; but when he comes to his own marriage he rarely, or never, takes any such care. He is impelled by nearly the same motives as the lower animals, when they are left to their own free choice, though he is in so far superior to them that he highly values mental charms and virtues. On the other hand he is strongly attracted by mere wealth or rank. Yet he might by selection do something not only for the bodily constitution and frame of his offspring, but for their intellectual and moral qualities. Both sexes ought to refrain from marriage if they are in any marked degree inferior in body or mind; but such hopes are Utopian and will never be even partially realised until the laws of inheritance are thoroughly known. Everyone does good service, who aids towards this end. When the principles of breeding and inheritance are better understood, we shall not hear ignorant members of our legislature rejecting with scorn a plan for ascertaining whether or not consanguineous marriages are injurious to man.

Here, Darwin may have been thinking of his own marriage to his cousin, Emma Wedgwood. Observe that there is no hint in Darwin’s words that he advocates coercion. He writes only of voluntary forbearance and the need for greater knowledge.

This is his next paragraph, in which he mentions his cousin, Francis Galton:

The advancement of the welfare of mankind is a most intricate problem: all ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children; for poverty is not only a great evil, but tends to its own increase by leading to recklessness in marriage. On the other hand, as Mr. Galton has remarked, if the prudent avoid marriage, whilst the reckless marry, the inferior members tend to supplant the better members of society. Man, like every other animal, has no doubt advanced to his present high condition through a struggle for existence consequent on his rapid multiplication; and if he is to advance still higher, it is to be feared that he must remain subject to a severe struggle. Otherwise he would sink into indolence, and the more gifted men would not be more successful in the battle of life than the less gifted. Hence our natural rate of increase, though leading to many and obvious evils, must not be greatly diminished by any means. There should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring.

Did you get that? He writes that because rapid multiplication is good for evolution, “our natural rate of increase, though leading to many and obvious evils, must not be greatly diminished by any means.” That’s not exactly what the eugenics movement was urging. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Then he concludes that chapter, and the book, by saying:

We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system- with all these exalted powers — Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.

He writes of our “sympathy” and “benevolence” for the most debased. There is no hint of compulsory eugenics.

There’s one more relevant item in Darwin’s writings. It’s in a Letter to G.A. GASKELL, dated 15 November 1878 (if you click over there, you’ll have to search on Gaskell to find it). Gaskell was a eugenics enthusiast, but he’s little-known today. He wrote to Darwin, and Darwin wrote back:

With regard to your third law [Social Selection, or the Birth of the Fittest], I do not know whether you have read an article (I forget when published) by F. Galton, in which he proposes certificates of health, etc., for marriage, and that the best should be matched. I have lately been led to reflect a little, (for, now that I am growing old, my work has become [word indecipherable] special) on the artificial checks, but doubt greatly whether such would be advantageous to the world at large at present, however it may be in the distant future. Suppose that such checks had been in action during the last two or three centuries, or even for a shorter time in Britain, what a difference it would have made in the world, when we consider America, Australia, New Zealand, and S. Africa! No words can exaggerate the importance, in my opinion, of our colonisation for the future history of the world.

Darwin doesn’t think Galton’s ideas “would be advantageous to the world at large at present.” Darwin (as we read the letter) seems to suggest that the “difference it would have made in the world” wouldn’t necessarily have been beneficial, given the importance of “our colonisation for the future history of the world.” Well, he was a Victorian Englishman. Darwin’s letter goes on to say:

If it were universally known that the birth of children could be prevented, and this were not thought immoral by married persons, would there not be great danger of extreme profligacy amongst unmarried women, and might we not become like the “arreoi” societies in the Pacific? In the course of a century France will tell us the result in many ways, and we can already see that the French nation does not spread or increase much.

I am glad that you intend to continue your investigations, and I hope ultimately may publish on the subject.

Darwin is polite, as always, but he doesn’t seem wildly enthusiastic about Gaskell’s proposed law — or Galton’s proposals.

That’s all we can find that Darwin had to say on the subject of eugenics. There isn’t the slightest suggestion that he favored compulsory sterilization or any of the other features of the eugenics movement. Whatever evils that movement produced cannot be blamed on Darwin.

There’s yet another creationist lie — that Darwin’s work supports genocide. That’s even more outlandish than the charges about racism and eugenics. We’ve already discussed that myth here, so we won’t repeat ourselves.

Racism is as old as humanity; and eugenics — despite its modern incarnation — also has ancient roots. Neither can be attributed to Darwin. In his opposition to slavery, and by pointing out that all humans are a single species, Darwin probably did more than most people to eliminate the ancient evil of racism. The creationists, given their well-known historical associations, are in no position to throw stones.

Update: See Creationism and Racism.

Update: See Discovery Institute: Darwin = Racism.

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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9 responses to “Racism, Eugenics, and Darwin

  1. Eugenics is a combination of Mercantilism with Darwinism. The fault is not in Darwinism, but with Mercantilism. Just as the government can not predict who should be the winners in business, they can not predict who should be the winners in biology.

  2. With far less (but still unconscionable) distortion than that deployed by the Creationists in promulgating their “Darwin the Eugenicist” lie, one could lay the blame for rape on the injunction of Genesis 1:28: Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.

    And with genuine accuracy, one could identify Exodus 22:18, Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live, as the direct incitement to tens of thousands of documented murders by ecclesiastical authorities.

    All of which is offered here to illustrate the folly of mixing religious squabbles into scientific discourse, where it has no place.

    But, absent any science, such inappropriate religiosity is all the Discoveroids have on offer.

  3. Great Claw says: “… Exodus 22:18, Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live …”

    Properly understood — by creationists — that refers to Darwinists.

  4. Excellent article but, even if some IDers read this and were swayed by your arguments (highly unlikely), and begrudgingly admitted that maybe Darwin wasn’t such a bad guy, they would still point to “Darwinism” as the root of all evil. Anything that undermines their belief in the “designer” is automatically a threat and therefore evil.

  5. Who’s against eugenics here? Do you have any considerable argument that would discredit this science? Hitler?… This is not eugenics, this is fascism, even though he claimed to run eugenical programs. All parents want to have nice-looking and smart children, NOT UGLY AND STUPID! This is the main argument for eugenics existence.

  6. Many people miss the point. ID is a marketing campaign, so any method to demonize the opposition is acceptable, indeed, laudatory. The Creos have always characterized evolution as Darwinism, to personalize it like Marxism, Freudianism, and Stalinism. Ideologies named after individuals are always bad. They are attempting to frame the evolutionary process using a single name, so all evolutionary proposals, true or false, modern or old and abandoned, can be included under Darwinism for public consumption.

    It doesn’t matter if Darwin was a saint, and by the standards of his day he was close. Disparaging and demonizing Darwin will now cast doubt in people’s mind about Darwinism. The IDCreos don’t care if Darwin was a racist or proto-Hitler or not–they are just going to present him that way using every rhetorical, polemical, and specious argument they have. By titling a book From Darwin to Hitler when it contains not a single piece of evidence of a connection is nothing more than marketing and framing.

    The IDCreos are in an advertising war in the public square, trying to change public opinion. They pretend to be scientists, do science, present science, write science books, etc. when all they have is pseudoscience. They’ve been able to get ordinary people to call evolution Darwinism. Then these people hear that Darwin is responsible for eugenics, the Nazis, the Holocaust. What are they going to think?

  7. Steven Schafersman says:

    The IDCreos are in an advertising war in the public square, trying to change public opinion. They pretend to be scientists, do science, present science, write science books, etc. when all they have is pseudoscience.

    Good to see you here. Very well said.

  8. People who argue that Darwin’s theories caused the Holocaust are in the same category as people who argue that religion caused September 11th: their arguments are not logical. Neither religion nor evolution are inherently evil; it is in the hearts of the extremists who misconstrue the intent of these theories that the evil can be found.

  9. Nice article. Spencer began the “social darwinism” movement. Even though Darwin had nothing to do with it (neither evolutionary biology), it was and it is still today called social darwinism. That’s just a group of utilitarian philosophies that attribute human progress to competition among individuals.

    Utilitarian philosophers, like Spencer, used darwinian biology to justify their views, and give them more credit, of course, as biology has greater authority than philosophy.

    Eugenic programs were implemented in every single State in America, and in many countries in Europe. Compulsory sterilization for the mentally retarded and the unfit were common. I think that Eugenics is simply a misconception, based on wrong assumptions and incomplete facts.

    We today have a much comple view of how evolution works, and how inheritance is much more complex than we thought.

    Pablo’s Origins Blog