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Darwin and Race: Three Strikes, He’s Out

Michael Flannery
Photo: African pygmy Ota Benga was displayed at the Bronx Zoo in 1906, in support of Darwinian theory, via Wikimedia Commons.

February is Black History Month, and this week, Friday, February 12, is Darwin Day — the birthday of Charles Darwin. It is, therefore, quite appropriate to probe and ask, What exactly did Charles Darwin — evolution’s “leading light” — believe about race? Was he a racist? Most of Darwin’s apologists say emphatically, “No!” Adrian Desmond and James Moore, for example, suggest that opposition to slavery was indeed Darwin’s “sacred cause,” and that his conviction that all humankind was linked together through common descent led to that fervent belief. Adam Gopnik in Angels and Ages (2009) states emphatically, “Racism, in any form that would have been familiar in his time or would be familiar in ours, had no place either in Darwin’s life or in Darwin’s logic.” But is this true? A careful examination of the facts suggests that when it comes to Darwin and race it’s, “Three strikes, you’re out!” 

Ranking Races by Intellect

First, although Darwin may indeed have opposed slavery, he did not believe in racial equality. In the Descent of Man (1871) he cited the work of his generation’s leading ethnologists — J. Barnard Davis and Paul Broca — in linking cranial capacity with racial and ethnic hierarchies. Darwin was quite clear on the matter; “science” demonstrated that craniometrics allowed for the ranking of intellect accordingly:

The belief that there exists in man some close relationship between the size of the brain and the development of the intellectual faculties is supported by the comparison of skulls of savage and civilized races, of ancient and modern people, and by the analogy of the whole vertebrate series. Dr. J. Barnard Davis has proved [emphasis added], by many careful measurements, that the mean internal capacity of the skull in Europeans is 92.3 cubic inches; in Americans 87.5; in Asians 87.1; and in Australians only 81.9 cubic inches.

Should there be any surprise, then, that Darwin would tell the Reverend Charles Kingsley in a letter dated February 6, 1862, “It is very true what you say about the higher races of men, when high enough, replacing & clearing off the lower races. In 500 years how the Anglo-saxon race will have spread & exterminated whole nations; & in consequence how much the Human race, viewed as a unit, will have risen in rank.” Or that he would write to William Graham on July 3, 1881, “Remember what risks the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago of being overwhelmed by the Turks, and how ridiculous such an idea now is. The more civilised so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilised races throughout the world.” For Darwin, humans could be placed into definite racial categories with an Anglo-centric eye. Did Darwin really believe in the equality of all humankind: no. Strike one.

The “Brotherhood of Man”

Did common descent translate for Darwin into racial equality — the so-called “brotherhood of man”? Quite the contrary. For him, common descent also meant struggle for existence and so “survival of the fittest” could easily translate into racial superiority, national expansion, extermination of “inferior” peoples, and a view of human “progress” that was unmistakably racialized. Even his apologists, Desmond and Moore, are forced to admit in Darwin’s Sacred Cause (2009), “Darwin ended up calibrating human ‘rank’ no differently than the rest of his generation. After shunning talk of ‘high’ and ‘low’ in his youthful evolution notebooks, he had ceased to be unique or interesting on the subject.” For Darwin common descent meant the evolutionary ascent of “superior” ethnic and racial groups over “inferior” ones. Strike two.

Darwin and Eugenics

Finally, there is Darwin’s contribution to eugenics, a horrific abuse in the name of “science” that sought to “improve” humanity by selective breeding of society’s “best” and the forced sterilization of society’s “worst” people. One of Darwin’s most persistent defenders, historian Peter Bowler, insists in Darwin Deleted (2013), that eugenics was spawned by middle class fears of a rising tide of the “unfit” in later 19th- and early 20th-century society. Furthermore, he argues, “It was eugenics that encouraged scientists to focus on heredity and recognize the potential of artificial selection, and they could have done this without the inspiration of Darwinism.” It is true that eugenics certainly had a class-based element to it, but it is also true that eugenics was also seen as a form of “racial hygiene” leading toward a “better” society. Bowler’s claim that eugenics could have been pursued without Darwin is doubtful. After all, it was Darwin’s own fascination with the domestic breeding of pigeons and livestock that formed the first chapter of his Origin of Species (1859) and this domestic breeding analogy he took to be the essence of natural selection’s creative power. Jean Gayon has argued convincingly in Darwin’s Struggle for Survival  (1998) that his domestic breeding analogy was not merely a pedagogical tool or heuristic device but essential to the theory itself. But despite what Bowler argues, the link between Darwin and eugenics was made by leading eugenicists themselves, as when Paul Popenoe and Roswell Hill Johnson write in Applied Eugenics (1918):

The science of eugenics is the natural result of the spread and acceptance of organic evolution, following the publication of Darwin’s work The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, in 1859. It took a generation for his ideas to win the day; but then they revolutionized the intellectual life of the civilized world. Man came to realize that the course of nature is regular; that the observed sequence of events can be described in formulas which are called natural laws; he learned that he could achieve great results in plant and animal breeding by working in harmony with these laws. Then the question logically arose, “Is not man himself subject to those same laws? Can he not use his knowledge of them to improve his own species, as he has been more or less consciously improving the plants and animals that were of most value to him, for many centuries?

So it would appear that efforts to distance Darwin from the odious designs of eugenics are contradicted by the statements of eugenicists themselves. Whatever Bowler may think of the matter, it is clear that Darwin’s theory was uppermost in these social manipulators’ minds when they contemplated the “wonders” to which eugenic principles could be applied. Strike three. 

By any measure, when racial equality is being discussed, Darwin is clearly out of the running.

Editor’s note: Darwinism and its legacy for racial thinking are examined in John West’s multiple award-winning documentary Human Zoos: