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Charles Darwin: Racist Spokesman for Anglo-Male Superiority?

Editor’s note: Last week, Scientific American viciously smeared all critics of Darwinian theory with an article titled, “Denial of Evolution Is a Form of White Supremacy,” by Allison Hopper. As promised, we are presenting some of our extensive past coverage of the tight links between racism and evolution. This article was originally published on May 13, 2021.

A recent article at The College Fix reports that the University of Sheffield’s teaching and research handbook has declared Charles Darwin a “racist” who concluded that his “renowned theory of natural selection justified the view that the white race was superior to others, and used his theory of sexual selection to justify why women were clearly inferior to men.” The Sheffield proclamation brought a hail storm of denials and protests, insisting that it was unhistorical and “morally stupid.” The Darwin defenders stress that he was opposed to slavery, and as Adrian Desmond and James Moore tried to demonstrate in their book Darwin’s Sacred Cause, that formed a conviction of universal “blood kinship” based upon common descent for the evolutionist. 

Three Strikes, You’re Out

Nevertheless, I’ve indicated repeatedly that there is a difference between the sheer fact of opposition to slavery and a fervent belief in racial equality. That Darwin opposed slavery is certainly true, but that he rejected the idea of racial equality is also true. This is why I’ve called Desmond and Moore’s misguided book a whitewashing effort that offers “little new and nothing of importance.” It is also wrong to exonerate Darwin as merely the product of his “times,” an era when supposedly everyone was racist. Alfred Russel Wallace, co-founder of the theory of evolution by natural selection, certainly wasn’t. Unlike Darwin, he insisted all peoples everywhere “possess human qualities of the same kind as our own,” and in terms of “intelligence and morality” emphasized that there is “no marked superiority in any race or country.” 

Nothing of this sort ever came from the public or private pen of Darwin; in fact, quite the opposite. Another of Darwin’s scientific contemporaries, Richard Owen, also rejected racism. As I’ve noted before, Owen and Darwin on race represent a “study in contrasts.” Therefore, when it comes to Darwin’s racial views, the umpires of history should give him a loud “Three strikes, you’re out” call.

Darwin on Gender

Darwin’s views on gender were equally benighted. In Descent of Man, Darwin made reference to   men’s superior “inventive genius” over women because of their “absolutely larger” brains. He continued, “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman — whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music (inclusive both of composition and performance), history, science, and philosophy, with half a dozen names under each subject, the two lists would not bear comparison.” Of course, Darwin never considered that these fields were dominated by men, and within Victorian patriarchal society most women would have been precluded from entry in the first place. Darwin’s list merely reflects prevailing cultural prejudices, not inherent science-based capacities. Darwin was always a poor sociologist. 

History Speaks for Itself

So was Darwin a spokesman for Anglo-male superiority? The University of Sheffield says, “Yes!” Darwin’s defenders claim this is wrongheaded and historically inaccurate. But history speaks for itself without their superficial glosses and impassioned denials. 

At the same time, however, let’s not let Darwin become victim to the excesses of the so-called “cancel culture” frenzy (it should be mentioned that the University of Sheffield is not removing Darwin from the curriculum, only adding others who have been underrepresented). Rather, Darwin and his theory should be examined carefully and dispassionately within their true historical contexts. To reject Darwin’s views is one thing;. To bury them is something else.

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.



Adrian DesmondAlfred Russel WallaceCharles DarwincultureDarwinian theoryDescent of MangenderHistoryJames MooremoralityprejudicesRacismRichard OwenThe College FixUniversity of Sheffieldwomen