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Museum Exhibit Suppresses Darwin’s Real Views on Eugenics, Race, and Capitalism

While the newsmedia lavish praise on the new Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, no one seems to have noticed that the museum is presenting a thoroughly sanitized portrait of Charles Darwin, completely suppressing Darwin’s real views on such troubling issues as eugenics and race.

According to the online version of the exhibit, far from being a “Social Darwinist,” Mr. Darwin is supposed to have been a passionate egalitarian who would have been horrified by any application of his theory to social and political issues. The exhibit proclaims:

Darwin passionately opposed social injustice and oppression. He would have been dismayed to see the events of generations to come: his name attached to opposing ideologies from Marxism to unbridled capitalism, and to policies from ethnic cleansing to forced sterilization. Whether used to rationalize social inequality, racism or eugenics, so-called Social Darwinist theories are a gross misreading of the ideas first described in the Origin of Species Species and applied in modern biology. [emphasis added]

In reality, Charles Darwin was an early booster of both eugenics and the application of his biological theory to issues of race and economics. Darwin’s book The Descent of Man has an entire section devoted to the application of natural selection to civilized societies. Darwin’s discussion opens with the following remarkable complaint, which was echoed again and again by later eugenists:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

[Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871 edition), vol. I, p. 168); emphasis added]

It’s true that Darwin wasn’t a champion of forced sterilization, but that’s because the technology for sterilization wasn’t developed until well after Darwin died. Darwin was certainly supportive of the early eugenics ideas promoted by his cousin Francis Galton (who actually coined the term “eugenics”), and he favored eugenic restrictions on marriage. [See Descent of Man (1871), vol. II, p. 403]

Moreover, Darwin used his biological theory to defend capitalism. California State University historian Richard Weikart has ably documented how Darwin drew on natural selection to criticize the work of trade unions and cooperatives, and how he even endorsed a book by German biologist Ernst Haeckel that employed Darwinism to refute socialism. [See Richard Weikart, “Laissez-Faire Social Darwinism and Individualist Competition in Darwin and Huxley,” The European Legacy (1998), vol 3, No. 1, pp. 17-30, especially pp. 19-25; and Richard Weikart, “A Recently Discovered Darwin Letter on Social Darwinism,” Isis (1995), vol. 86, pp. 609-611.]

Finally, although Darwin opposed slavery, he firmly believed that the evolutionary process had created superior and inferior races. He maintained in Descent of Man that human intellectual development was the product of natural selection and that natural selection had produced significant differences in the mental faculties of “men of distinct races.” [See Darwin, Descent (1871), vol. I, pp.109-110, 160, 201, 216.] In the same book, Darwin disparaged blacks and observed that the break in evolutionary history between apes and humans fell “between the negro or Australian and the gorilla,” indicating that he considered blacks the humans that were the most ape-like. [Darwin, Descent (1871), vol. I, p. 201] Darwin also predicted that “[a]t some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.” [Darwin, Descent (1871), vol. I, p. 201.] The racist cast of Darwin’s thought is difficult to deny.

Darwin was undeniably a great figure in the history of human civilization, and I think that his works should be read by every literate American. But he was also a fallible human being who had some unsavory views about the social implications of his theory. Rather than honestly portray the real Darwin, the Museum has apparently decided to suppress the historical record and rewrite history in order to present Darwin as a figure who is completely disconnected from all of the problematic applications of his theory to politics and society.

This is hagiography, not history. It’s an example of what some have called “Darwinian fundamentalism.” Darwin is such an iconic figure for some of his latter-day boosters that they can’t admit any fact that might somehow tarnish his reputation. There is an interesting story here for someone who wants to pursue it. Why are Darwinists so insecure that they must rewrite history in order to portray Darwin as a secular saint?

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.