In Darwin’s Racists, authors Sharon Sebastian and Raymond G. Bohlin try to make the case that Darwin’s ideas promote racism. They tie Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and Planned Parenthood to Darwinism. In Ben Stein’s documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, he tries to tie Darwinism to the holocaust. Answers in Genesis says, “Although racism did not begin with Darwinism, Darwin did more than any person to popularize it.” On the other hand, in Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond and James Moore argue that Darwin’s main motivation for his scientific investigations was his hatred for slavery. According to these two authors, Darwin wanted to prove that all men have a common ancestor to show that all men should be treated equally.
So who is right? Was Darwin a racist? Did his theory promote racism? Was Darwin an abolitionist who attempted to show that all men are part of the same, happy family? The short answer is that Darwin was a racist, but neither he nor his theory promoted racism. In the same way, neither he nor his theory fought against racism. The long answer, of course, is much more interesting.
There is no doubt that Charles Darwin was a racist. He believed and wrote racist things. In The Descent of Man, for example, he wrote:
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. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes…will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest Allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as the baboon, instead of as now between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla.1
So Darwin thought of some races of man as “civilized” and others as “savage.” He also thought that the Negro and Australian races were somewhere BETWEEN ape and man. Throughout his writings, it is clear that he has a very low view of non-European people. However, none of this is really surprising. After all, racism was preached from every “respectable” pulpit in Europe.
Indeed, racism was rampant everywhere during those times, and it could easily be found in creationist circles. For example, Samuel George Morton was an American physician and natural scientist. He published Crania Americana in 1839. In this, he showed his measurements of different skulls and said that these measurements proved there are four separate races, only one of which (the Caucasian race) really had “human” intellect. He specifically refused to claim these races developed over time, because he was a creationist. Here is what he said about these races:
Caucasian Race: This race is distinguished for the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments. . . The spontaneous fertility of [this race] has rendered it the hive of many nations, which extending their migrations in every direction, have peopled the finest portions of the earth, and given birth to its fairest inhabitants
Mongolians: So versatile are their feelings and actions, that they have been compared to the monkey race, whose attention is perpetually changing from one object to another
American Natives: Their mental faculties, from infancy to old age, present a continued childhood. . . . [they] are not only averse to the restraints of education, but for the most part are incapable of a continued process of reasoning on abstract subjects.
Negro: In disposition the Negro is joyous, flexible, and indolent; while the many nations which compose this race present a singular diversity of intellectual character, of which the far extreme is the lowest grade of humanity.
If that’s not racist enough for you, let’s read the work of another creationist, George McCready Price. He came shortly after Darwin and is considered by some to be the father of the modern creationist movement. He wrote such books as Illogical Geology: The Weakest Point in the Evolution Theory and The New Geology, which attempted to refute Darwin’s ideas and stand firm to young-earth creationism. In fact, Henry Morris, the founder of the young-earth Institute for Creation Research, says that he found reading The New Geology to be a life-changing experience. Here is something else McCready wrote:
The poor little fellow who went to the south
Got lost in the forests dank
His skin grew black, as the fierce sun beat
And scorched his hair with its tropic heat
And his mind became a blank.2
You see, like modern creationists, Price didn’t have a problem with adaptation and variation. He also believed that God specifically intervened to change the race of man. In his book, The Phantom of Organic Evolution, he wrote that racial interbreeding after the Tower of Babel was a violation of God’s Law, and God cursed such unions by producing Negroes, Mongolians, and apes!
The point to all this is that while Darwin was a racist, so were most anti-Darwinists. Thus, to try to say there is something bad about Darwinism because Darwin believed in an evil idea is ludicrous, because that would mean there is something equally bad about creationism, since the creationists around Darwin’s time were racists too. In fact, in my reading of the Darwinists and anti-Darwinists of the time, I find Darwin one of the least racist of the people I have read.
While Darwin did believe the Europeans were superior to all other races, he did not condone treating the other races poorly. Consider what he wrote in his 1845 journal, Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world, under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy:
Those who look tenderly at the slave-owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter;—what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children—those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own—being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty: but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin. 3
Now I am sorry, but I don’t think Samuel George Morton or George McCready Price would write something like this. While Darwin wrongly saw the slave as an inferior, it at least made his “blood boil” to see the slave treated poorly.
I think this is where people like Adrian Desmond and James Moore get the idea that Darwin was trying to destroy racism by promoting his idea. Like most people, Darwin was a complicated man. He was a great scientist (even great scientists can be wrong), a man who struggled with his faith until finally losing it, a man who was the product of his time, and a man who had at least some notion that much of what was taught to him during his life was wrong. If you take the time to read his works, all that becomes clear. Thus, trying to categorize him as a crusading racist is just as wrong as trying to present him as a fervent anti-racist. He was a racist, but one who didn’t like the products of the racism in which he himself believed.
But wait a minute. Even if Darwin himself didn’t promote racism, surely his theory of evolution did, didn’t it? After all, Darwin thought the races of men evolved from some ape-like ancestor along different evolutionary paths. It only makes sense, then, that some are “less evolved” than others. Doesn’t that promote racism? Indeed, that’s how many have taken Darwin’s views over the years. Lots of horrible atrocities have been performed using that line of thinking.
However, lots of horrible racial atrocities occurred long before Darwin came along. How did people justify them before? Generally through some creationist model. For example, Samuel George Morton believed that the races were individually created by God, and only the Caucasian race was made in His image. As a result, the Caucasians were the only “true” men. The others were really nothing more than animals. A creationist line of thinking, then can produce racism that is just as ugly as the racism an evolutionary line of thinking can produce.
That, in the end, is the real point. Neither evolution nor creation is racist. Evil people are racist. Evil people will do evil things, and they will look at some way to justify themselves. Some (like Hitler) used evolution. Others (like Price) used creation. Neither view of origins is racist, and neither promotes racism. Both, however, can be used by evil people for evil ends.
1. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871, p. 201
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2. Michael Ruse, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, Harvard University Press, 2005, p. 239
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3. Charles Darwin, Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world, under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy , 1845, p. 499-500
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