[Editor’s Note: Historian Richard Weikart is featured prominently in the just-released DVD, “What Hath Darwin Wrought?” exploring the painful history of Social Darwinism in Germany and America from the twentieth century to the present. To purchase a copy or find out more information about this documentary, visit www.whathathdarwinwrought.com.]
Pointing out Darwin’s anti-slavery sentiments has been a favorite tactic for many years by those wanting to deny Darwin’s racism. However, Adrian Desmond and James Moore raised this discussion to an entirely new level by claiming in their 2009 book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause, that abolitionism was the driving force behind Darwin embracing biological evolution. This is especially remarkable because Desmond and Moore stated in their earlier biography of Darwin:
“Social Darwinism” is often taken to be something extraneous, an ugly concretion added to the pure Darwinian corpus after the event, tarnishing Darwin’s image. But his notebooks make plain that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality were written into the equation from the start–“Darwinism” was always intended to explain human society. (xxi)
This is not the place to rehearse all the reasons why abolitionism was not likely as important in shaping Darwin’s evolutionary views as Desmond and Moore claim. Many reviewers have already critiqued their thesis, and most historians of science seem unconvinced by it.
However, in all the brouhaha over Darwin’s Sacred Cause, I have heard very little discussion of what seems to me one of the most remarkable parts of the book.
About halfway through the book, in chapter six, Desmond and Moore drop a bombshell. They argue that after embracing biological evolution, allegedly because of his desire to stress the unity of the human species, Darwin’s embrace of Malthus in 1838 radically altered his vision of race relations. Darwin came to embrace racial competition and even genocide as natural processes bringing evolutionary progress. This does not mean Darwin was cheering for genocide, of course, but as Desmond and Moore explain, “Darwin was turning the contingencies of colonial history into a law of natural history. An implicit ranking–with the white man accorded the ‘best’ intellect–ensured the colonist won when cultures clashed.” (p. 149) They then state, “Imperialist expansion was becoming the very motor of human progress. It is interesting, given the family’s emotional anti-slavery views, that Darwin’s biologizing of genocide should appear to be so dispassionate.” (p. 150) A bit later: “Natural selection was now predicated on the weaker being extinguished. Individuals, races even, had to perish for progress to occur. Thus it was, that ‘Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal’. Europeans were the agents of Evolution. Prichard’s warning about aboriginal slaughter was intended to alert the nation, but Darwin was already naturalizing the cause and rationalizing the outcome.” (151)
Ironically, when evolutionists appeal to Darwin’s Sacred Cause to prove Darwin’s anti-racist credentials, they conveniently ignore this part of the book.
One other passage in Darwin’s Sacred Cause that is worth examining is the closing passage, where Desmond and Moore try to show that Darwin’s abolitionist sentiments were still in force in The Descent of Man (1871). They quote a passage from Descent where Darwin mentions Clarkson, one of the leading abolitionists of the early nineteenth century, as the apex of morality. However, curiously Desmond and Moore never reflect on the primary message of this passage in Darwin’s work. Indeed here Darwin was stressing the radical moral differences between different races. Darwin was claiming that barbarians–to use Darwin’s own term–were morally inferior to Europeans, especially Europeans like Clarkson. This passage may have paid homage to one of the leading abolitionists, but it did so in a way that emphasized and promoted racism.
Darwin’s Sacred Cause, then, shows us a Darwin zealously devoted to the humanitarian cause of abolition, but it also shows a Darwin committed to racism and resigned to the necessity of racial extermination for evolutionary progress. No wonder Desmond and Moore claim that when Darwin adopted natural selection by reading Malthus, “His science was becoming emotionally confused and ideologically messy.” (p. 148) (stay tuned tomorrow for part 4 on “Can Ruse’s View of Ethics Save Us from Hitler?”)
Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State Univ., Stanislaus, a research fellow of Discovery Institute, and author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress.