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The Casual Racism of Charles Darwin

Origin of Species
Photo: Mural portrait of Charles Darwin, Sidney Street, Sheffield cc-by-sa/2.0 © Neil Theasby via Geograph.

Much ink has been spilled over the issue of Darwin’s views on race. Was he a racist or wasn’t he? Given the mythological status enjoyed by Darwin in the modern world, it is understandable that proponents of his work would try to distance him from any taint of racism. Adrian Desmond and James Moore make such an attempt in Darwin’s Sacred Cause by focusing on Darwin’s anti-slavery views and his relationship to a former slave who taught him how to skin birds during Darwin’s time in Edinburgh. Desmond and Moore fail to realize that being anti-slavery (which Darwin was) has little to do with being anti-racist (which Darwin wasn’t). Even the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, believed that freed slaves could not integrate effectively into white society and he explored possibilities for repatriation to Africa. In addition, by focusing on Darwin’s relationship with a freed slave, Desmond and Moore commit the common “I can’t be racist because I have a black friend” fallacy.

Most recently, Allison Hopper weighed in on this subject in the pages of Scientific American, outrageously accusing critics of evolutionary theory of being motivated by white supremacy. Her startlingly vacuous opinion piece simply ignores the long legacy of both racism and anti-racism attached to adherents of both monogenist and polygenist views of human origins. One does not become racist because of the view one holds on human origins. One becomes racist for other complex reasons and then reads that racism back into whatever view on human origins you hold.

Letters from Darwin

That Darwin held racist views is well documented in the Descent of Man. This has been much discussed and I will not rehearse it here. But I do want to add to the discussion two of Darwin’s letters that document a kind of casual racism that should close the door on this question. 

By casual racism, I mean the use of racialized language in a non-racist context. Such language betrays a wanton disregard for the ugliness embedded in the racialized language and therefore a callous lack of interest in how such language serves to perpetuate racist systems. If, according to the great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself, then Darwin’s indifference to the history behind racialized terminology may say as much about his views on race as the overtly racist things he says in Descent. So, what kind of language did Darwin use?

In November of 1836, just a month after returning from the Beagle voyage, Darwin wrote to his sister Caroline about the plight of their brother Erasmus. Darwin was in London visiting Erasmus, giving him the opportunity to meet Harriet Martineau, a well-known British socialite and author who had become Erasmus’s constant companion. Darwin complains to Caroline about the nature of this relationship and says:

Our only protection from so admirable a sister-in-law is in her working him too hard. He begins to perceive (to use his own expression) he shall be not much better than her “nigger.” Imagine poor Erasmus a nigger to so philosophical & energetic a lady. How pale and woe he will look….We must pray for our poor “nigger.” 

It is certainly startling to see the N-word cropping up in Darwin’s letters, but this is not the only place. In 1848 Darwin signed a letter to his wife, “Your old nigger — C.D.” It appears the N-word served as a playful term that Charles and Emma both used to refer to themselves in order to denote how they were each other’s slaves in the marriage relationship.

A Possible Objection

Some might object that since Darwin is not using the N-word here in reference to black people, using the word in this context is not racist. But nothing could be further from the truth. By trivializing the racialized history of this word in so cavalier a way, Darwin is demonstrating a callous indifference to the horrifying experiences endured by real slaves. Darwin may have been against slavery in theory, but his casual use of racialized language betrays a man very much ensconced in the ideology of white British imperial supremacy, not someone truly grappling with the ugly facts of slavery and racism.

Trying to remake Darwin into a champion of racial equality is a fruitless exercise. As an upper class Victorian gentleman, Darwin was fully socialized into the ideology of British imperial supremacy and to pretend otherwise is simply to refuse to accept the obvious. The father of modern evolutionary theory was a racist who gave birth to a theory unfortunately used by many others to advance their own racist agendas. Any fair assessment of the role of Darwinian evolution in history must wrestle with these basic facts.