An article about Darwin and race has been recirculating. It was written back in 2013 by Phil Moore of the Everyday Church, London . It is on The Gospel coalition website and was originally in ThinkTheology. Depsite its title it is really a claim than Darwin was an out and out racist and supported genocide.
What Your Biology Teacher Didn’t Tell You About Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin is a great British hero. That’s hardly surprising, since he was one of the most influential thinkers of the past 200 years. I happened to live opposite Darwin’s former lodgings when I was a student at Cambridge University, so I looked out each morning on a blue plaque hailing him as one of the greatest Britons who ever lived. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve that commemorative plaque, but I should point out that he wasn’t a British hero but a British villain. You don’t need to be a Bible-thumping evangelical to question whether Darwin’s thinking deserves to be given a bit more thought.
Whatever your views on origins and evolution, we can hopefully all agree that, at present, we give far too much honor to the British thinker who justified genocide.
Devaluation of Humans
Darwin didn’t hide his view that his evolutionary thinking applied to human races as well as to animal species. The full title of his seminal 1859 book was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. He followed up more explicitly in The Descent of Man, where he spelled out his racial theory:
The Western nations of Europe . . . now so immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors [that they] stand at the summit of civilization. . . . The civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races through the world.
Thankfully, most British people today are embarrassed by the racist rhetoric that undergirded the late-Victorian British Empire. What’s astonishing is how little they understand that Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution provided the doctrine behind its white supremacism. Whereas the British Empire of the early 19th century had been dominated by Christian reformers such as William Wilberforce, who sold slave badges that proclaimed, “Am I not a man and a brother?”,
Darwin’s writings converted an empire with a conscience into an empire with a scientific philosophy. Four years after Darwin published The Origin of Species, James Hunt turned it into a justification for slavery. In his 1863 paper, “On the Negro’s Place in Nature,” he asserted: “Our Bristol and Liverpool merchants, perhaps, helped to benefit the race when they transported some of them to America.”
Christian reformers had spent decades in the early 19th century teaching Britain to view non-European races as their equals before God.
In a matter of years, Darwin swept not only God off the table, but also the value of people of every race with him.
Victorian Britain was too willing to accept Darwinian evolution as its gospel of overseas expansion. Darwin is still celebrated on the back of the British £10 note for his discovery of many new species on his visit to Australia; what’s been forgotten, though, is his contemptible attitude—due to his beliefs about natural selection—toward the Aborigines he found there. When The Melbourne Review used Darwin’s teachings to justify the genocide of indigenous Australians in 1876, he didn’t try and stop them. When the Australian newspaper argued that “the inexorable law of natural selection [justifies] exterminating the inferior Australian and Maori races”—that “the world is better for it” since failure to do so would be “promoting the non-survival of the fittest, protecting the propagation of the imprudent, the diseased, the defective, and the criminal”—it was Christian missionaries who raised an outcry on behalf of this forgotten genocide. Darwin simply commented, “I do not know of a more striking instance of the comparative rate of increase of a civilized over a savage race.”
Meanwhile, several thousand miles away, Cecil Rhodes was gleefully embracing Darwin’s thinking as justification for white expansion across southern Africa. He was so inspired by Darwinian evolutionist Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man that he later confessed, “That book has made me what I am.”
What it made him was the architect of one of the most brutal and immoral acts of European expansion and genocide in history. Rhodes wrote in 1877:
I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. . . . It is our duty to seize every opportunity of acquiring more territory and we should keep this one idea steadily before our eyes that more territory simply means more of the Anglo-Saxon race, more of the best, the most human, most honorable race the world possesses.
If what Rhodes believed sounds shocking to you—and I hope it does—then understand that he was simply stating what he drew from the works of both Darwin and Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, who extrapolated his cousin’s thinking to pioneer racial eugenics.
Select Your Choice
I’ve used British examples because I’m British, and it seems more polite to point out the errors in my own national worldview than in that of other nations. I could’ve pointed out how Darwin’s thinking was used by late 19th-century Americans to justify acts of genocide against Native Americans. I could’ve pointed out how Hitler and his Nazi philosophers used it to justify wars of expansion and horrific holocaust. I could’ve pointed out how Communist Russia used Darwinian evolution to justify its liquidation of non-Russian people groups within the Soviet empire. I could’ve pointed out how it was used by Serbs to justify their genocide against Croatians and Kosovans.
But I don’t have to. The British example is enough to make us question whether Charles Darwin was truly a British hero at all. At least we should strip him of his place on our £10 banknote and stop protecting his thinking from the scrutiny it deserves in school classrooms, in TV documentaries, and in the corridors of power.
Because whether or not you agree with his thoughts on evolution, you should at the very least want to discover he was wrong.
Whom would you rather discover was right all along? The Christian reformers of the early 19th century, like William Wilberforce and the Earl of Shaftesbury, who argued from belief in divine creation that slaves should be freed and that children shouldn’t be forced to work themselves to death in factories for having been born to the wrong parents? Or Charles Darwin, who argued from belief in a godless beginning to the universe that natural selection is a virtue and that, consequently, acts of genocide are part and parcel of the way the world was always supposed to be?
In the words of Jesus himself, “By their fruits you will be able to judge their teaching.”
Phil Moore leads Everyday Church in London. He also serves as a Bible teacher and evangelist within the Newfrontiers family of churches. He is the author of the Straight to the Heart series of devotional commentaries. Phil is married to Ruth, and they have four young children. Together, they love eating strange and exotic food, watching movies with lots of popcorn, and reading books by Roald Dahl. You can follow him on Twitter.
Here’s an excellent reply by the Christian historian of science Ted Davies . He’s saved me the bother of doing all the fact checking. Moore is a disgrace.
I was about to respond to the essay but felt Ted had given a good response pointing out the many errors and misquotes etc. But there are a few things I’d like to add. I ought to say I’ve been researching aspects of Darwin’s geology and religious views for 30 years and have published academic papers on his geology. I have all his publications and his correspondence going up to 1862, when the money ran out! It’s all online now anyway..
First to consider are Darwin’s views on slavery. His family of Darwins and Wedgwoods had been abolitionists for 3 generations . Josiah Wedgwood, his grandfather, designed and made the medallion;
Am I not a man and a brother
It is almost daft that Moore referred to Wilberfoce giving out these medallions, designed by Darwin’s grandfather.
Darwin’s parents were very involved in abolition, which was not surpising as his mother was a Wedgwood. For several generations the Darwins and Wedgwoods were the radical, Unitarian side to abolition in contrast to the evangelicalism of Wilberforce and others. In fact the Abolitionist movement was a coalition of Evangelicals, Quakers and Unitarians.
The first volume of Darwin’s Correspondence often refers to slavery and how his family were involved with the local archdeacon in abolition.
And so at the end of 1831 Charles set sail on The Beagle and was appalled by slavery in Latin America. He rejoiced when he read of the probable coming of abolition in 1833 in a letter to his sister, Catherine; (Correspondence May 22 1833)
. How famously the Ministers appear to be going on; I always much enjoy political gossip, & what you at home think will etc etc take place. I steadily read up the weekly Paper; but it is not sufficient to guide one’s opinion: and I find it a very painful state not to be as obstinate as a pig in politicks. I have watched how steadily the general feeling, as shown at elections, has been rising against Slavery.—What a proud thing for England, if she is the first Europæan Nation which utterly abolishes it. I was told before leaving England, that after living in Slave countries, all my opinions would be altered; the only alteration I am aware of is forming a much higher estimate of the Negro character. It is impossible to see a Negro, and not feel kindly towards him; such cheerful, open, honest expressions & such fine muscular bodies. I never saw any of the diminutive Portuguese, with their murderous countenances, without almost wishing for Brazil to follow the example of Hayti; and considering the enormous healthy looking population, it will be wonderful if at some future day it does not take place. There is at Rio a man (I know not his titles) who has large salary to prevent (I believe) the landing of slaves: he lives at Botofogo, & yet that was the bay, where during my residence, the greater number of smuggled slaves were landed. Some of the Anti-slavery people ought to question about his office; it was the subject of conversation at Rio amongst some of the Lower English.
Of course, some would see white privilege here, but it was written in 1833
His main recorded argument with Capt Fitzroy was over slavery, which Fitzroy supported.
Reading his correspondence it is clear that Darwin was easily triggered over slavery and responded to attack its cruelty.
Slavery contnued to trigger Darwin as it did when he read Lyell’s Travels in north America (1845), in which Lyell criticised American racial attitudes, but disapproved of the Abolitionist movement. That was too much for Darwin. There seems to be a missing letter of August 1845 where Lyell toned down his views. Even so Darwin was so triggered that he revised his conclusion with all guns blazing with this superb piece of morally-charged writing on the horrors of slavery, which he inserted into the second edition of The Voyage of the Beagle (1845).
I don’t know how anyone can say Darwin was a racist after reading it. Here Darwin had gone into a strident autoethographic mode!
“On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean; I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master’s eye. These latter cruelties were witnessed by me in a Spanish colony, in which it has always been said, that slaves are better treated than by the Portuguese, English, or other European nations. I have seen at Rio de Janeiro a powerful negro afraid to ward off a blow directed, as he thought, at his face. I was present when a kind-hearted man was on the point of separating forever the men, women, and little children of a large number of families who had long lived together. I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of;—nor would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the negro as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil. Such people have generally visited at the houses of the upper classes, where the domestic slaves are usually well treated, and they have not, like myself, lived amongst the lower classes. Such inquirers will ask slaves about their condition; they forget that the slave must indeed be dull, who does not calculate on the chance of his answer reaching his master’s ears.
It is argued that self-interest will prevent excessive cruelty; as if self-interest protected our domestic animals, which are far less likely than degraded slaves, to stir up the rage of their savage masters. It is an argument long since protested against with noble feeling, and strikingly exemplified, by the ever-illustrious Humboldt. It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease. 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. “
Well, it is absolutely clear that Darwin loathed slavery and his faimilies had done their part for abolition.
[A review of a book on Darwin and slavery http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/desmond-moore-sacred/ }
But was Darwin a racist?
YES, YES, YES according to all woke anti-racists. He was a typically evil Victorian full of white privilege and a condescending attitudes to the poorer classes and inferior races.
NO, NO, NO, when judged fairly by moral standards and the standards of his day.
no, no, no when judged by the standards of today.
I am amused by this comment from Moore ;
The full title of his seminal 1859 book was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life.
If Moore had read The Origin he would know that, apart from a cryptic sentence
“light will be thrown on the origins of man and his history.”
Darwin did not mention humans at all and thus even less than zero on races! In the title Darwin was referring to different races, or groups, or families of plants and animals. It was a vague and general term. From reading much Creationst stuff on Darwin and race, I reckon this was just lifted from an article on Darwin’s alleged racism!! I often come across it and facepalm when I do. I also doubt the integrity of the writer.
The long quotation I gave from The Voyage of the Beagle should suffice for most people as it shows deep compassion and concern for those who suffer. In The Diary he makes a few comments about slavery , which though critical seem dispassionate. I get the impression he was a strong decoupler so did not feel he always had to make strong moral judgements. However this quote on leaving Brazil was most passionate and should be required reading for all on matters of slavery and race. It is haunting writing.
His writings and especially his letters often bring out his compassion, as he was not constrained by “academic” impartiality. He supported a charity for chimney sweep boys and, to the surprise of many, supported the South American Missionary Society which worked in Patagonia. SAMS was and is a very evangelical Anglican missionary society. I’ve never found out why he supported it beyond geographical links. I suggest he was more concerned by the physical welfare of Jeremy Button’s compatriots.
As Ted Davis points out , some of his comments in books, especially The Descent of Man can, at a push, be taken as racist, but as I said above he was a strong decoupler. Often his descriptive statements are seen as prescriptive. Note he knew how original inhabitants of Americas died of disease when the Spanish and Portugese came. Disease enabled the conquest more than guns. Further he had witnessed how indigenous peoples were losing out to settlers, not so much as by war, or even genocide, but by disease and their inability to compete.
Against this, if you read more about Darwin – and for me it is the first 11 volumes of his Correspondence and his son’s Life and Letters, reams of semi-legible notes, transcribed notebooks, his various writings and much about him, like me, you will have to conclude he was a compassionate and moral person, with severe questions about God, an abhorrence of slavery, and a concern for those in need. However he had the assurance of a successful and wealthy Victorian that his style of life was somewhat better than anyone else. I suppose to those who protest below the statue of his “follower” (?????) Cecil Rhodes at the front of Oriel College might make him guilty of valuing his “white privilege” – and that would make him a racist of the vilest kind.
As Moore concluded his article;
In the words of Jesus himself, “By their fruits you will be able to judge their teaching.”
I think that Darwin’s fruits and teaching on race were quite good and for the 19th century and excellent example